Michigan State forward Nick Ward has become one of the best players in the nation this year, even as he's flown under the radar on his own squad.
While teammate Miles Bridges receives more national attention after returning for his sophomore year despite being a projected NBA lottery pick, Ward has been the more efficient player. Before facing the Maryland men's basketball team on Thursday, Ward averaged 15.4 points and 7.5 rebounds in fewer than 19 minutes per game while shooting at a 72-percent clip. He blocked 1.7 shots per contest.
The Terps knew first-hand how good Ward could be entering their matchup with the top-ranked Spartans. After all, he amassed 22 points and 16 rebounds against them last year.
But Maryland's game plan to stop him made little difference in its 91-61 shellacking in East Lansing. Despite going scoreless until the 9:35 mark of the first half, Ward ended up with 16 points and five rebounds in only 22 minutes. Bridges proved an equally dominant force with 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
Ward also made an impact defensively, blocking two shots as the Spartans outscored the Terps, 24-14, in the paint and tallied nine total rejections.
Coach Mark Turgeon had limited options to slow Ward given the absence of forwards Ivan Bender and Justin Jackson, both of whom would have likely taken turns defending the 6-foot-8, 245-pounder in the post. Forward Bruno Fernando and center Michal Cekovsky — the team's other main post defenders — got into quick foul trouble, forcing Turgeon to lean on reserves Joshua Tomaic and Sean Obi for a combined 30 minutes.
Cekovsky fouled out with more than eight minutes remaining in the game. Fernando played with four fouls for most of the second half.
"Ceko and Bruno both know we need them in the game," guard Kevin Huerter said. "It was kind of tough when those guys got thrown into the fire a little bit."
While the Terps' frontcourt weakness wasn't the only thing that cost them in their blowout defeat, it's a glaring issue that'll cause additional trouble as Big Ten play continues. Minnesota and Purdue, which boast similarly dangerous inside presences, face Maryland later this month.
Not having Jackson or Bender due to season-ending injuries is a break Maryland couldn't have prepared for. But for the Terps to make the postseason, something has to change. Either Fernando and Cekovsky need to improve their play while avoiding foul trouble, or the team's perimeter shooters' outside play must make up for getting overwhelmed down low.
Neither of those outcomes took place against the No. 1 team in the nation on Thursday, making a 30-point loss inevitable.
As Michigan State pulled away in the second half, Cowan kept things from becoming even worse for the Terps. He had 17 second-half points, finishing with 26 total, and played almost every minute of the contest. It's hard to fault him for the way the game transpired.
Huerter started the game blazing from long range, making three of his first four 3-pointers en route to a 14-point first-half. His shooting helped Maryland stay in the game for most of the opening 20 minutes. But his struggles after halftime, when he registered just two points, placed too much pressure on Cowan to carry the backcourt load.
During one early sequence, Fernando forced Ward to miss a difficult left-handed hook shot with a good defensive effort before hitting a midrange try over Ward at the other end. But following that promising stretch, Fernando struggled on both sides of the ball, shooting 2-for-8 and picking up four fouls.
Morsell deserves some credit for limiting himself to just five shots given his recent offensive struggles. But for a guard who prides himself on dogged perimeter defense, Michigan State's 16-for-28 display from deep had to sting, even if he wasn't the only person to blame.
Two points, one rebound and five fouls in 11 minutes. With the Terps needing their center to produce given their lack of depth, he instead had one of the worst games of his career.