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Stat Watch: How much does losing Nick Ward hurt Michigan State?

The teams are statistically nearly identical with him. After the hairline fracture to his hand, the Spartans have to replace a lot.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State lost its highest-usage player in Nick Ward this past weekend in the win over Ohio State. A fractured left hand will keep the 6-foot-9, 245-pounder off the court for three to five weeks.

Here’s to a swift recovery for the Spartan big man — even if his head coach has rooted for Michigan injuries in the past.

This development has thrown a wrinkle into Sunday’s heavyweight in-state bout between the two rivals (3:45 p.m. ET, CBS). The two teams are inseparable statistically, but how does that change without Ward?

First, a look at the current analytical resumes between the Wolverines and Spartans:

Michigan — No. 6 nationally per Ken Pomeroy

  • 1.13 points per possession scored (No. 35 nationally)
  • .859 points per possession allowed (No. 2)

The Wolverines sport a 9-2 mark against the top-50. The offense has scuffled to just 1.05 points per possession, but the defense has held strong with just .88 allowed.

MSU — No. 4 team nationally

  • 1.2 points per possession scored (No. 6)
  • .892 points per possession allowed (No. 7)

The Spartans have played four more games against the Kenpom top-50, and hold an 11-4 record in such games. The offense has hummed to 1.1 points per possession. The defense, meanwhile, hovers at .964 allowed.

The takeaway is with various approaches, both teams are amongst the college basketball elite in 2019. Without Ward, how does the equation change for MSU?

The Spartans have to replace a guy who tallied 15.1 points and 6.7 boards a game, ate up 29.3 percent of possessions and drew 7.7 fouls every 40 minutes. With Michigan’s lack of depth in the front court, that last number is key to avoiding foul trouble.

Other numbers explain his presence inside. He blocks 1.4 shots a game, shoots 60 percent on his twos and helps fuel the nation’s No. 26 offensive rebounding unit.

One potential area for Michigan to exploit: conditioning. Tom Izzo heavily rotated his big men, swapping Ward for sophomore Xavier Tillman on a nearly 50-50 basis. Tillman will likely have to play a majority of minutes, as the other Spartan frontcourt options are a pair of freshman in Thomas Kithier and Marcus Bingham.

Tillman is a capable player, actually producing better rebounding, assist, block and steal rates than Ward. Plus, he runs the court better than Ward.

He also makes 69 percent of attempts around the basket . The question is not his effectiveness, but if he can maintain it for a full game.

On top of that, Michigan also cleans up on the defensive glass, ranking No. 24 nationally. The Wolverines have structured their defense to mitigate second-chance opportunities. This should be magnified in Ward’s absence.

Lastly, no one on Izzo’s roster nearly matches Ward as a foul-drawing machine. Cassius Winston is next closest at 5.1 drawn per 40 minutes, but only one other player averages over four (Tillman). The Wolverines are the third-best team in the country at avoiding fouls.

In short, Michigan excels at countering MSU’s bread-and-butter tendencies: second-chance points and free throw opportunities. Without Ward, watch the Wolverines attempt to wear him out to force minutes from the little-used Kithier.

Where does that leave Izzo? Likely hoping Winston, Foster Loyer and Matt McQuaid win their battles with defensive stalwarts in Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews.

Call this an early advantage for John Beilein and the Wolverines.