After watching what was presented to him as a classic post battle between two old-school big men, Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo had one conclusion.
“I love (Kaleb) Wesson,” he said, “but I love Nick Ward a little bit more.”
It was an understandable vibe from a victorious coach. In a showdown between two top-15 teams Saturday afternoon, the game within the game involved the two central Ohio big men putting together the best seasons of their careers. In the end, Wesson, a sophomore, outscored Ward, the junior, 25-21 but fouled out and had to watch the final 1:52 of the Spartans' 86-77 victory from the bench.
Ward entered the game averaging 16.4 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 65.9 percent from the field, the ninth-best mark in the nation. The Buckeyes countered with Wesson, who was averaging 16.5 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 54.4 percent.
The two immediately went after each other. Ward blocked a Wesson shot on the game’s first possession, and Wesson, a Westerville South product, was whistled for a foul defending the Gahanna product at the other end. So it would continue, with Wesson posting his Big Ten career high in points.
“I thought he was really effective and assertive in the low post and managed the physicality pretty well, got to his spots pretty well, and our guys did a really good job finding him,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “You don’t see a lot of that anymore in college basketball, but it is the makeup of their team and the makeup of our team.”
Ward scored his 21 points on only seven field-goal attempts but was 11 for 14 from the line as he drew a game-high 11 fouls. The two entered the game one-two in the nation in average fouls drawn per 40 minutes, with Ward on top.
“Nick’s a great player,” Wesson said. “I feel like both sides of the ball, they were giving us the ball and we just went to work. I feel like his teammates got him the ball in the right spots, my teammates got me the ball in the right spots. We just had to go to war.”