Head Coach Tom Izzo went with Cassius Winston, Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry, Thomas Kithier, and Xavier Tillman to start the game. Watts was inserted into the starting lineup following the untimely injury to Joshua Langford, and he struggled shooting the ball for most of the night. Racking up just over 20 minutes of playing time, Watts shot 2-7 from the field (0-5 from three), finishing with just four points to go along with five rebounds and four assists. Despite the struggles, Izzo was pleased with the first-year guard and stressed the importance of his versatility on the court.
“I thought Rocket played awfully well for a freshman,” Izzo said. “He came in and did what he had to do. ... He’s been a real pleasant surprise, I'm not surprised that he wasn’t good enough, but I think he’s better at some things than I thought he was. Defensively, (he's) been an unbelievable teammate. When you watch him out there, he’s just cheering for everybody. ... He’s mentally tough enough. He’s going to be an exciting player to watch and an exciting player to coach.”
Watts was ready for the big stage and was excited to get the season going with his new team.
“That moment was real great,” Watts said. “My first home game, playing in front of such great students and fans, in front of my family, I can’t explain the feeling right now. Winning my first college game (and getting) my first college bucket, it just feels good.”
The other surprise in the lineup was Kithier, a sophomore forward, and his performance should help his case to remain a starter moving forward. Dominating on the glass, Kithier had eight rebounds at halftime, finishing with eleven total to go along with seven points and three assists in just over 19 minutes of play.
“I’m really proud of (Kithier),” Izzo said. “I thought (he) rebounded the ball as well as you can. He’s got great hands. ... He didn’t get as many shots as I was hoping ... he hits the big three. That was, I think, all we could ask out of Thomas Kithier. ...(He) might have been as bright of a bright spot because we all know the biggest question right now is the four.”
Xavier Tillman was the standout of the group, as he posted 19 points, eight rebounds, and three steals in just under 22 minutes of play. He looks to be in line for a monster season.
Turnovers and 3-pointers Plentiful
The green and white were letting it fly from deep all night long, attempting 35 three pointers, much to Izzo’s dismay. The team finished 12-35 from beyond the arc.
“I was really disappointed to take 35 threes in that game,” Izzo said. “It seemed like ... the ball went inside, they really collapsed, we were unselfish to kick it out. That was good, but way too many threes.”
The Spartans also had 17 turnovers in the game, with nine of them coming from three starters. Tillman led the way with four, while Henry had three and Watts had two.
Cassius Winston: First-Team All-Defense?
The senior guard had only taken two shots by halftime, and Izzo jokingly asked him if he was boycotting the team. Winston took over in the second half, finishing just one assist shy of a double-double with 16 points and nine assists. The biggest takeaway for Izzo from Winston’s stat line, however, was the four steals.
“Really played within himself,” Izzo said. “ ... As I told him down there, I’m going to have to come up for the first time in my career and say, ‘four steals, he’s probably turning into a first-team defensive player now.’ All kidding aside, I think the added strength in his legs, I just felt like he was moving very efficiently.”
It was well documented that Winston’s two younger brothers, Zachary and Khy, were on Albion’s roster. Zachary was dealing with a hip injury and didn’t suit up, and Khy collected just under 11 minutes of playing time. He attempted just one shot the whole game, but it was a big one. In the second half, guarded by Cassius, Khy handled the ball in the corner of the court. Daring him to shoot, Cassius looked on as his younger brother drained one from deep, much to the enjoyment of the current University of Detroit Jesuit (where the Winstons attended high school) basketball team and head coach that was in attendance.
“Big moment for him,” Cassius Winston said with a smile. “(I stayed back) a little deep on purpose though, (to) make sure he got one.”
Steven Izzo, New Fan Favorite
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With 3:07 remaining in the game and the Spartans in full control, the student section started chanting “We want Izzo!” repeatedly, and they got their wish. They weren’t cheering for their beloved head coach, however. The fans wanted Tom to check his son, freshman guard Steven Izzo, into the game. Upon entering, Izzo was met with deafening cheers, and they continued on every time he touched the ball. His first shot attempt, a three pointer, sailed beyond the net and resulted in an airball. Izzo would get his chance at redemption soon after, as he was fouled and put on the line with just 31.2 seconds remaining. He would go 1-for-2 at the line, but that one point was all the crowd, and his father, needed for fulfillment.
“Can’t believe the kid shot an airball the first time,” Tom Izzo said. “I have to admit, it was cool. It was cool. I don’t know what to say. ... I made sure that I didn’t take anyone else’s minutes away. ... He really shoots the ball well. He got in the books and I felt good about that for him.”
That was about as eventful as it gets for an exhibition game. Everyone got a chance to show what they could do, and the team looks like they will have no problem living up to the No. 1 preseason ranking they were awarded. A lot can happen between now and March but one thing is for certain, the Spartans are ready to take care of unfinished business.
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