EAST LANSING — After its season-opening Champions Classic loss to Kansas, No. 11 Michigan State (3-1) has bounced back from that, putting together possibly its most complete performance of the year, trouncing the winless Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles, 101-33.
The Spartans struggled from beyond-the-arc in their last time out, going just 6-for-29 from deep, and they didn’t look a whole lot better from 3-point land Sunday night. MSU had a rough first half, going just 5-for-20 from deep, but it finished the night 14-for-33 after a scorching 69 percent clinic in the second half.
“I really think we finished better tonight,” head coach Tom Izzo said of his team’s dominant victory. “The only negative of the night to me was the amount of wide open threes we missed in the first half.”
After playing just five minutes before going out with an ankle injury in Wednesday’s 80-59 win over Louisiana Monroe, junior forward Nick Ward returned Sunday night and had one of his best showings of the young season.
The 6-foot-9 Gahana, Ohio native shot out of the blocks early, tallying the Spartans’ first eight points in the half. Finishing the half with a 90 percent field goal clip, Ward outscored the entire Golden Eagle team 18-14 after 20 minutes. Ward went on to finish the game with a team-high 23 points on an efficient 10-of-12 showing from the floor.
“I told you after the Kansas game that I’ve been really pleased with Nick,” Izzo said of his star big man. “Nick has been sensational. He really has.”
Following up an impressive 23-point outing on Wednesday, junior guard Cassius Winston continued his stellar play, pouring in 19 points, with 15 of those coming from beyond-the-arc.
“I thought Cassius, after missing a couple easy shots, made some great ones,” Izzo said of his sharpshooting guard.
Senior guard Matt McQuaid was held scoreless in the ULM outing and struggled again Sunday night. McQuaid finished the night with a meager eight points with just one 3-point bucket.
“We’ve been doing a pretty good job with turnovers and defense,” McQuaid said of his team’s efforts. “We can always do better, but we just gotta keep improving in those areas.”
The Spartans will need McQuaid’s 3-point shooting, which is currently the lowest of his four-year career percentage-wise (33% from deep), against UCLA in Thursday’s Las Vegas Invitational opener. The Bruins have been stout defending the 3-point line so far, stifling teams to just 28 percent from beyond-the-arc.
“We’re definitely not satisfied, but we feel really good,” sophomore forward Xavier Tillman said when gauging his team’s readiness for UCLA. “These next six games are going to be notable games, so for us, we can’t come into the game any different than we have the past couple of games.”
MSU was sloppy with the basketball in its first two games, turning the rock over 34 times. Over the past two games, the Spartans have coughed it just 15 times, including just eight times Sunday night.
“We’ve gotta emphasize the turnovers and play as hard we can. If we defend, rebound and run and play Spartan basketball, we should be fine,” Ward said of his team's mindset moving forward.
Efficiency with the ball will be a thing to watch in the Spartans’ matchup with the Bruins. Steve Alford’s team is turning teams over 14 times a game, which is just over what Michigan State gives up on average (13.7 turnovers per game).
“We’re going to have to play a lot better and continue to move the ball better,” Izzo said of his team’s approach in the next six outings. “There’s not one game that you’re gonna breathe in in the next six and that’s gonna be the hardest thing that we have to deal with.”
The freebies on MSU’s schedule are no longer, with a daunting six-game stretch beginning Thursday night against UCLA in Las Vegas. Thursday’s tipoff is slated for 10 p.m. EST on FS1.