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

Illinois v Michigan State

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 20: Nick Ward #44 of the Michigan State Spartans shoots a free throw during a game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Breslin Center on February 20, 2018 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

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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.