Oh what a difference a year brings.
The date is Jan. 7, 2018, No. 1 Michigan State is on the heels of their most embarrassing loss of the season, a 80-64 defeat at the hands of an up-and-coming Ohio State team at Value City Arena.
Miles Bridges posts 17 points, Jaren Jackson Jr. adds 11, but the future lottery picks can’t get the job done in the first road test of the year. The Buckeyes compiled a monumental run to close out the first half, sealing the Spartans’ fate.
A team with so much athleticism and talent couldn’t forge a comeback, or even come close to one. The fight just wasn’t there, the heart was lacking.
Fast forward to the present day, when a much different No. 8 MSU team earned its first signature win of the season over the Buckeyes. This situation was much different than the last, even though both contests were played in Columbus.
Two entirely different teams battled on the hardwood. The Spartans’ budding stars bolted for the draft, while Ohio State lost its top scorer Keita Bates-Diop. Both teams rebuilt from within, as underclassmen and overlooked players from the year prior stepped into larger roles.
Previous sophomores Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Josh Langford entered their junior seasons as the go-to scorers in green and white. The Wesson brothers, Andre and Kaleb, advanced from smaller roles into the leaders at Ohio State.
But the main difference from this year to last wasn’t personnel-related, but instead a change in response. The Buckeyes crafted another momentum-changing run headed into the half, this time 10-0, but the Spartans decided to respond with an even bigger force.
“I’m going to be honest with you, halftime wasn’t a lot of fun,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo said when asked about his team’s response to another Buckeye run headed into the half.
A gritty, more determined team not only staged a comeback, but took control down the stretch to take down the No. 14 Buckeyes and exorcise the demons from almost exactly one year ago. This team didn’t fold, it rose. It played with an edge that had gone missing for so long.
“We won the game because of Nick and Cassius,” Izzo said. “Anytime you get a win in this league right now, it’s something. Anytime you get a road win it’s frosting on the cake.”
Nick Ward may have summed it up best.
“This was one of those games that shows how far we’ve came.”
Tom Izzo and his team
Last season wasn’t the easiest coaching job for Tom Izzo, he’ll be the first to admit that. He likes to joke about the very few things that are fun about his job, but last season the running joke slipped ever close to reality.
“If you think back to a year ago, you had a lot of people questioning me,” he said about his coaching job last year.
Talent was aplenty, but coachability sparse. Star players such as Jackson or Bridges proved less malleable than former MSU recruits, most of which weren’t as highly ranked as the talented duo. This squad doesn’t have the talent of the former, but it listens to its leader, and plays hard behind him.
“We’re not a better team than last year, don’t kid yourself. Can we become one? Maybe,” Izzo said. “I’m trusting my team, and they’re trusting me.”
Izzo is back to his old ways, taking the project players and lower recruits and molding them into cornerstones.
Take the maturation of Ward for example. Izzo has not only helped to refine his offense in the post and defensive abilities, but also worked with his prized forward on the mental aspects of competition.
Other players such as Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins have thrived under Izzo’s tutelage. McQuaid went from underrated guard prospect to elite defender and outside shooter, Goins from former walk-on to senior starter.
“What’s really fun in this job is when you see guys grow and you see guys get better,” Izzo said. “When you challenge people, and those people respond, that’s probably the most satisfying part of my job.”
After revamping the culture from last year’s conflicts and unearthing the chip again, the offseason adjustments Tom Izzo made prior to this season may be the best of his career.
The new Nick Ward
One of the more troubling players from last year was talented big man Nick Ward, and arguably the lowest point of his season came that at Ohio State long ago.
The then-sophomore went scoreless from the field while battling his emotions throughout the contest. His hometown of Gahanna, Ohio is just outside Columbus, he had numerous members of his family and friends in attendance and played accordingly. He was too “hyped up” persay. He played outside of himself.
This came during a season when he clashed with his head coach, struggled to maintain his focus and keep his emotions in control. Just like the script was flipped from last year’s Ohio State game to this one, Ward underwent a complete turnaround after the NBA Draft Combine.
Aside from scouts suggesting he trim down and grow his game, the mental side of the game was also discussed.
“When I was doing the draft process, I was told that I have to work on my emotions,” Ward said. “I hadn’t even thought about that.”
Ward followed those instructions to a tee, and the Spartans are seeing the results.
“I used to play with my emotion on my sleeve,” Ward said. “I’ve gained maturity and I’ve stayed mellow. I don’t stay too high or too low, I just stay myself.”
There’s no better example of Ward’s growth than his display against the Buckeyes. He entered an atmosphere in which he struggled in the past and dominated, scoring 21 points and going pound-for-pound with Ohio State’s young star Kaleb Wesson.
“That’s another guy that grew a lot [Ward], Izzo said. “We all knew that last year was a disaster down here for him, partially because they [Ohio State] was good last year, partially because he let things get to him. That maturity makes me feel good about him.”
Ward has shown NBA scouts an outstanding intangible skill, the ability to make major adjustments. And they were impactful ones that changed the course of his basketball career forever.
Michigan State has regained the chip and brought back the edge, and the comebacks of Tom Izzo and Nick Ward are at the forefront of that movement.