For the first time since 2006 and 2007 Tom Izzo failed in consecutive years to take the Spartans to a Sweet 16. While it was more expected this year the Spartans would come up short, the performance put up by the freshman against Miami and Kansas gives promise for the future.
While many saw the dazzling play of Miles Bridges this season, Nick Ward was snubbed off the Big Ten all freshmen team and slid under the radar for the most part. The importance of Ward was shown late in the game against Kansas Sunday night. Ward had been playing with three fouls as the Spartans closed the Kansas lead to just one, but when he went up for an offensive board and was questionably given his fourth foul Kansas exploded. With Ward on the bench the Jayhawks increased their lead, completely demoralizing the Spartans in the final five minutes en route to a 20 point win.
The backcourt seems to be solidified going into next season with Cassius Winston coming into his own and Lourawls Tum Tum Nairn Jr. providing a veteran presence. Late in the season Josh Langford began to find his game and with a frontcourt being revitalized next season, if Miles Bridges stays, he will not have to play in the four role.
Giving Nick Ward the versatility to play, as either a five or four next season is huge for a team that lacked forward depth all year. Kenny Goins seemed to lack any dominant ability he had before his injury last season and the injuries this season causing a lack of bench depth put a lot of pressure on the freshman Ward to deliver, and did he ever. With a year of college level basketball under his belt and with Ward being in better shape, Ward is the player to watch in the Big Ten next season.
At his best Ward has the ability to replicate the sophomore seasons of either Ethan Happ or Caleb Swanigan. Both were dominate in their own right and put up monster numbers, with Swanigan tying the Big Ten record for double-doubles in a season. Ward has the shooting ability of both and his rebounding numbers were among some of the best in the nation.
With a bigger rotation to help support him if he gets in foul trouble, and hopefully some improved free throw shooting, Ward will be the most important player for the Spartans next year as they look to make a run toward the Big Ten title and deep in the Big dance.