Three takeaways from MSU’s loss at the Champions Classic

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Cassius Winston/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

INDIANAPOLIS — No. 10 Michigan State squared off against No. 1 Kansas in the eighth edition of the Champions Classic. The Spartans struggled in the first half but showed an effort to correct their early woes. After increasing intensity, energy and effort, they erased a large first-half deficit but fell to the Jayhawks 92-87. Here are three of the biggest things out of Tuesday’s season opener.

Nick Ward showed signs of his old self – but not the way he wanted

Ward, a junior forward, tallied just four points, all on free throws. He missed his five shot attempts and secured a rebound. Talks about Ward’s new and improved game was a headline coming into the season opener, but as head coach Tom Izzo said in his postgame press conference, he can’t show it all in one game. Forced passes and forced shots plagued Ward against the Jayhawks. There was one specific moment in the game that Izzo took exception to.

“And then there was a critical play,” Izzo said. “Nick Ward layup, foul, they hit the three on the other end while he’s laying on his back. That bothered me. We’re not good enough against them to have a 5-point swing when it’s an 8-point game.”

When asked about how his upperclassmen played, Izzo shared a few more thoughts on his forward, recognizing their past and giving some praise to his progress.

“Nick Ward, I gotta say this, Nick Ward and I were the Hatfields and the McCoys most of last year – [he] has been so good, so good,” Izzo said. “It was like he was going to prove everything in one night and just did some things.”

If Ward wants to be the heart and soul of this team – something he’s more than capable of doing – he can’t force the issue, and he certainly can’t rub Izzo the wrong way. This is not to discredit his efforts and the task he faced. Going against Udoka Azubuike is a tough ask for anyone, and for the early stages of the game, it really was the Azubuike vs. Ward show. But when getting called for ticky-tack fouls and not getting a foul call on offense, he has to show some veteran leadership. Izzo has raved about the experience and leadership his team has and Ward is a part of that, but he has to break his old habits and take upon a much larger role.

Cassius Winston can’t do it all

Leading up to the opener, Izzo alluded to his junior point guard being his best shooter. If that’s true, Winston is being asked to score in an offense he’s supposed to navigate – a pretty hefty task. It’s hard to run up the scoring column while trying to be an elite passer and floor general; there isn’t enough basketball to go around. In the first half when the offense seemed to be out of sorts, Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid went a combined 1-for-6. That situation calls for another reliable scoring option and Winston has to be next in line. As rudimentary as it sounds, Winston needs help. He finished 3-of-10 from the field, scoring 13 points. He tallied 11 assists but turned the ball over five times.

“He wasn’t great because he had a lot of pressure on him,” Izzo said. “A couple of those turnovers, maybe he played a few minutes too long.”

Added responsibility comes from the minutes he’ll be asked to play. He averaged 29 minutes per game a season ago and logged 33 minutes in last night’s opener.

“I thought Cassius was pretty good,” Izzo said. “He had to do too much there for a while. That was tough. I don’t think Cassius was bad, I think he’ll get a lot better.”

Winston is going to be asked to do a lot, that’s no surprise. His minutes are going to increase, and he’ll somehow have to distribute the basketball and score when other options aren’t producing. As we saw last year, Winston is capable of shooting at an elite level, but he shouldn’t be MSU’s primary scorer– that’s where help needs to come.

The downsides of tough non-conference schedule magnified on a big stage

Izzo, year after year, schedules some of the toughest non-conference games. Participating in the Champions Classic only begins what is always a rigorous slate. Any team can benefit from playing some of the nation’s best teams, but the downsides are also there too – and they’re not just a loss.

Any team that plays Kansas this season has a lot to worry about, but with MSU’s tough, physical culture, they’re expected to be equipped enough to give teams like the Jayhawks a problem. Until McQuaid and Langford did their thing in the second half, it looked like MSU was going to be on the wrong side of a route. However, a route or a five-point loss, a game like today showed that games like this may expose things you aren’t ready to deal with on day one.

Ward had yet to be put through adversity. When he faced a challenge, he didn’t respond as an upperclassman should. Izzo had a few words about Ward after the game, some good, some critical, but it’s a dilemma he probably didn’t think he’d face from the get-go.

McQuaid and Langford have struggled to find consistency throughout their tenure as Spartans. This game was a microcosm of that, as they had bleak first halves but showed they can carry a team in the second half. Is Izzo ready to be faced with the questions that his two captains may not big-moment ready? Is it too early to make the assumption that McQuaid and Langford are back to their inconsistent play? Games like this will present these questions.

Izzo talked about referees and cutting them some slack because its their first game of the season, too. As bad as he thought a few calls were, the referees and players are both getting adjusted to new rules and interoperations. A high-caliber game with the possibility of mix ups between refs, coaches and players is part of the tough early schedule.

There is good, of course. From appeal to recruits, experience and NCAA tournament-like atmospheres, a challenging non-conference schedule on some of college basketball’s biggest stages has many upsides. But, with these upsides, comes the questions marks under the bright lights on day one.

MSU returns to East Lansing to play Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 11. A high-profile opponent isn’t scheduled until the Las Vegas Invitational where No. 21 UCLA, No. 8 North Carolina and Texas loom. Izzo has a couple weeks to find out as much as he can about his team before the stage elevates once again.