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Nick Ward’s return cements Michigan State as early Big Ten favorite

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Michigan State’s hopes of defending as Big Ten regular season champions and playing deeper into the NCAA tournament in 2019 received a boost Tuesday, as it was announced that power forward Nick Ward will withdraw his name from the 2018 NBA Draft and return for his junior season.

Ward was a key part of the Spartans’ front court rotation this past season, starting 34 of the 35 games he played in and averaging 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds in 18.9 minutes per game. When on the court Ward, who shot nearly 65 percent from the field, was very effective. And given the amount of front court production the Spartans will have to replace, Ward stands to see even more time on the floor in 2018-19.

Starters Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., who are both expected to be selected in the lottery portion of next month’s NBA draft, combined to average 28.0 points and 12.8 rebounds per game with the latter also blocking three shots per night. The losses of Bridges and Jackson are big ones, and with experienced reserves Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter out of eligibility Michigan State stands to be a bit younger inside next season.

But the return of Ward helps with regards to both production and experience, with rising senior Kenny Goins providing the latter attribute as well. Add in rising sophomore Xavier Tillman and incoming freshmen Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr. and Thomas Kithier, and the Spartans will have options in the front court.

Ward will be one of three double-digit scorers returning to East Lansing next season, with the others being guards Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford. And even though Michigan State did lose some talented options, they’ll be viewed by many as the early favorite to win the Big Ten.

Top 18 moments from 2018 NCAA tournament

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Big Dance withdrawal already? Fret not, as you can relive all the madness here, with the top 18 moments of the 2018 NCAA tournament.

18. Zhaire Smith does a Zhaire Smith thing

The Texas Tech freshman very well could be the best dunker in the country. Stephen F. Austin would be available as character witnesses about his credentials. Not too many guys in the country are going to be dropping 360-degree alley oops in a tourney game.

17. McQuaid’s crazy bank

Michigan State made just 8 of 37 3-pointers against Syracuse as it saw its season end. One of those makes was really cool though. Matt McQuaid’s blocked-then-banked triple at the first-half buzzer was the rare highlight for the Spartans against the Orange.

16. Two posters for the price of one

Wright State may have only gotten a few hours in the NCAA tournament, but Tennessee gave them a pair of posters to take home with them courtesy of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield unleashing two viscous dunks in their opening-round matchup.

 

15. Rob Gray slays

The Houston star brought Houston back from the brink against San Diego State and became an insta-star of the tournament when he scored 39 points against the Aztecs. His entire performance will be etched in Cougar lore, but it’ll be his game-winner that gets remembered by the country.

14. Loyola’s run begins

It ended in the Final Four, but it began with a last-second 3-pointer to knock off sixth-seeded Miami in the first round. If not for that, Sister Jean would have never entered our lives, and we all would have been lesser for it.

13. Arizona’s bizarre season comes to a close

It was an exceedingly weird season for Arizona. Injury, allegations, PEDs, losing streaks and Deandre Ayton being awesome, plus plenty more, made for a you-can’t-turn-away year, but it also made for a lot of dysfunction. The fact that the Wildcats didn’t look too sad to see it all end as Buffalo absolutely whupped them wasn’t exactly surprising, but it was striking.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

12. Dan Mullen takes his shot at Wichita State

Sure, most of the the best shots and most explosive fireworks came on the floor during the tournament, but Illinois State coach Dan Mullen landed his own bit of pyrotechnics with a simple tweet chiding Missouri Valley Conference defectors Wichita State after the Shockers’ first-round upset loss.

11. Miles Bridges throws down

Sure, Michigan State’s tournament ended with a dud – well, actually it was just a bunch of bricks – but at least the Big Dance was treated to a Miles Bridges special when the Spartan sophomore unloaded a nasty tip dunk against Bucknell.

10. Cincy Stunner

When you’ve got a 22-point second-half lead, generally you win. When you’ve got that kind of advantage in the NCAA tournament, you hold on to it for dear life.

Unless you’re Cincinnati.

The Bearcats suffered an unconscionable combustion down the stretch against Nevada to cough up their huge lead and an amazing potential path to the Final Four when the Wolf Pack stormed back to end Cincy’s season in the tournament’s first weekend.

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

9. “Overdose of swag”

Michigan found its way to the national title game, but needed Jordan Poole to bail them out of the second round with his buzzer-beater against Houston.

The shot prompted John Beilein to say Poole has an “overdose of swag,” which is honestly just about the most amazing compliment anyone has ever paid anyone ever.

8. Custer-beater

First it was Donte Ingram, then it was Clayton Custer. Loyola got a game-winner from the junior guard in the final seconds to earn its spot in the Sweet 16 and keep its magical Cinderella run alive for what would prove to be a Final Four season.

7. Leonard Hamilton is awkward

Maybe it’s just the age and culture we live in, but I feel pretty confident that the most memorable thing about Florida State’s Elite 8 tournament won’t be the fact that the Seminoles knocked off Xavier and Gonzaga to get there but rather the weird way in which Leonard Hamilton answered a pretty straight-forward and legit question about his team’s decision not to foul and extend the game in the waning seconds of its loss to Michigan.

6. Loyola’s second weekend

Clutch shots, unselfish play, Cinderella status and general likability made Loyola the darling of this year’s NCAA tournament. Whether it was a late 3 that lifted them past Nevada or the no-question-about-it handling of Kansas State to get to the Final Four, Loyola was just a ton of fun and looked the part of a national semifinalist.

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

5. Grant Hill becomes a meme

Luckily for Bill Raftery, breaking your glasses is a temporary problem. Unfortunately for Grant Hill, becoming a hilarious meme is forever.

4. Sister Jean mania

This tournament will be remembered for plenty of things. Just keep reading this list and you’ll find plenty of memorable moments. If, though, in 25 years we look back and think of a single person from this year’s tournament, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it was Sister Jean.

The 98-year-old nun and team champlain stole the show who her hoops knowledge, charm and wit.

3. Grayson Allen’s game-winner spins out

Grayson Allen nearly had his Laettner moment. The Duke senior’s shot that would have secured the Blue Devils’ spot in the Final Four with an iconic moment in a classic game simply just didn’t drop.

It was an amazingly apt end to a career that was incredible for plenty of reasons.

2. UMBC realizes the impossible

Everyone knew it had never been done. After 135 tries, the question became could it be done?

UMBC said yes.

The Retrievers became the first-ever 16 seed to upend a No. 1, with their shellacking of overall top seed Virginia in the first round. They won fans over with their play and fun Twitter account. What they really did, though, was make history.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

1. Nova cuts down the net

Donte DiVincenzo was unstoppable offensively and a stopper defensively while Villanova won its second title in three years. It was a dominant run through the tournament for the Wildcats, who established themselves as an elite squad when the narrative for much of this season was that no such thing existed.

When the curtain came down on 2017-18, Villanova was the star of ‘One Shining Moment.’

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VIDEO: Tom Izzo appears on Judge Mathis

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When sports figures, be they athletes or coaches, make guest appearances on television shows they’re usually seen on sitcoms with the occasional drama mixed in. A show in which court cases are argued? That doesn’t happen all too often.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo did just that during the summer, as he was part of the courtroom audience on “Judge Mathis.” The episode was filmed in mid August.

Judge Mathis took time to acknowledge Izzo’s presence in the court room, as his daughter was a student-assistant to the head coach during her time as a Michigan State student. Seated next to Izzo was Michigan State assistant Mike Garland.

VIDEO: Miles Bridges throws down between-the-legs dunk

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When Miles Bridges made the decision to sign with Michigan State, the Spartans knew that they were getting one of the top prospects in the stacked Class of 2016. And as Bridges has shown during the summer, he’s going to bring some serious excitement to the Breslin Center this winter.

Thursday night at the Moneyball summer league Bridges threw down a between-the-legs dunk…in game action. Bridges had a clear lane with no one between he and the basket, and he took advantage of the situation to give the fans in attendance a show.

Not expecting Bridges to try this during a game this winter (imagine Tom Izzo’s reaction if he did), so getting the opportunity to see this skilled wing do so during the summer is adequate.

College names surface in reports regarding Lakers coaching vacancy

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With some NBA head coaching jobs opening up, it’s that time of year when the names of prominent college basketball head coaches get mentioned for such opportunities. Of course we’ve all become used to the annual rumors involving Kentucky head coach John Calipari, who has yet to move away from one of the top jobs in the sport.

His name is one that has come up in recent reports surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers’ opening, with Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie and Villanova’s Jay Wright among those being mentioned by various outlets as well.

Ollie, who led his alma mater to a national title in his second season at the helm, was mentioned in reports by both Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com.

Ollie told ESPN’s Andy Katz on Monday that he has had no contact with the Lakers. He said he will always listen if called but it would take “something very special” to pull him away from UConn.

Ollie’s contract, which was signed after he led the Huskies to the national title in 2014, has a clause that would allow him to terminate his contract without penalty “on or after the one-year anniversary” of the departure of either athletic director Warde Manuel or UConn president Susan Herbst. Manuel left UConn in January to take over as athletic director at Michigan (his first official day was March 14), so a departure now would not meet the one-year requirement.

The buyout to leave for an NBA job would be $4 million until May 31, with the buyout amount dropping to $1 million after that date.

The latter report also named Wright, Calipari, Tom Izzo and Roy Williams as names the Lakers could consider for their opening. Wright led Villanova to its second national title earlier this month, and his Wildcats have won the last three Big East regular season titles.

NBA franchises have been more willing to look at successful college coaches in recent years, with Fred Hoiberg and Billy Donovan making the jump to the pros last season. Hoiberg took over in Chicago, but things didn’t go as planned for the Bulls as they missed out on the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season. As for Donovan, he’s running the show in Oklahoma City where the Thunder are up three games to one on the Mavericks.

Both coaches took jobs with (at first glance) the talent needed to be successful, which is a far cry from the jobs Calipari and Rick Pitino took with the Nets and Celtics respectively during the mid-1990’s. Does the Lakers job fit that mold? Having won a total of 38 games in their last two seasons, not to mention needing to fill the hole left by the retirement of Kobe Bryant, one can argue that this would not be an optimal job for a college coach to take.

But with the Lakers being a franchise that’s won 16 titles, the appeal of leading such a storied franchise can’t be denied even with the recent struggles.

Valentine leads No. 2 Michigan St. past Ohio St. 81-54

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Big Ten player of the year Denzel Valentine scored 19 points and Eron Harris added 13 to help No. 2 Michigan State blow out Ohio State 81-54 in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals on Friday night.

The Spartans (27-5) have won 11 of 12 and will face either Nebraska or No. 18 Maryland in Saturday’s semifinal.

JaQuan Lyle had 10 points to lead the Buckeyes (20-13), who have lost three of five and must wait until Sunday to see if they’ll get in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State thought one more impressive win could be enough.

But Valentine refused to let it happen against the Spartans. He scored 10 points in an early 13-3 run, made a 3-pointer during an 8-0 run to start the second half and finished with nine rebounds and eight assists.

Michigan State led by as much as 28 in the second half. The Buckeyes couldn’t get closer than 14 after that.

Valentine may have gotten a triple double – if coach Tom Izzo hadn’t pulled him from the game with 5:28 to play so he could get some extra rest before the weekend.

The short-handed Buckeyes just couldn’t stay with the deeper Spartans and it was evident from start to finish.

Michigan State jumped to a 17-7 lead in the first 6 1/2 minutes and still led 33-26 at halftime.

The early run in the second half gave the Spartans a 41-26 lead. Bryn Forbes’ 3-pointer with 13:07 left extended the lead to 20 and the Spartans continued pulling away late.

SHUT OUT

While it was a rough night by every measure for the Buckeyes, their most obvious problem was the inability to make 3s. Ohio State missed its first 12 shots from beyond the arc and didn’t end the drought until Lyle made one with 74 seconds to play. Ohio State finished 1 of 13, while the Spartans were 8 of 23.

TIP-INS

Buckeyes: Have lost five straight in the Michigan State series. … Ohio State has played five games against teams that reached last year’s Final Four and is now 1-4, losing three times to Michigan State in 17 days, once to Wisconsin. The lone win came against Kentucky in December. … The Buckeyes lost for only the fourth time in their last 19 Big Ten tourney games.

Spartans: Are one win away from playing for their third consecutive Big Ten tourney title in Indianapolis. … Matt Costello had no blocks and remains tied with Adreian Payne for second on Michigan State’s career list with 141. Branden Dawson has the school record, 142. … The Spartans improved to 91-35 in March games since 1998-99.

UP NEXT

Buckeyes: Will await postseason fate.

Spartans: Face either No. 18 Maryland or Nebraska in Saturday’s second semifinal.