It’s difficult getting out of the “what-ifs” during this time.
What if the basketball season hadn’t been cut short? What if Michigan State men's basketball was celebrating a National Championship, as ESPN's Joe Lunardi predicted in his Twitter tournament?
But among these what-ifs, I’ve looked back at what I do know about this men’s basketball season. As one of our beat reporters, I compiled a list of interviews and the storylines I planned on pursuing. I saved these for March, the month when basketball content would peak, and planned to tell all the stories I had saved for so long in my back pocket.
That was, until March was essentially canceled.
In this series, I’ll share the stories I never got to tell from this basketball season. I’ll share the stories that I saved in my back pocket and never got to finish.
The friendship of Rocket Watts and Kyle Ahrens
Senior forward Kyle Ahrens is from Versailles, Ohio. Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it either, so I did some research.
The town’s population is approximately 2,576. It’s located 25 minutes from the Indiana border and it stretches 1.88 square miles.
Freshman guard Rocket Watts is from Detroit. Population: 673,104. Square mileage: 142.9.
So, when coach Tom Izzo acknowledged the friendship between Watts and Ahrens on March 8, it was something I knew I wanted to explore.
“I look at those two as like the banker in 'The Beverly Hillbillies' and Jed,” Izzo said. “The city guy in Rock and the farmer in Arnie.”
The analogy Izzo was referring to dates back to the 1960s American sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The show follows a family from Appalachia that moves to Beverly Hills, California.
J.D. “Jed” Clampett, Izzo’s Ahrens, was the head of the family household. He was naive to anything outside of his small town in Appalachia but showed to have a good deal of common sense.
Milburn Drysdale, Izzo’s Watts, is Jed’s family banker. He was confident and outspoken and worked for what he wanted.
Izzo said the friendship he sees in Ahrens and Watts reminds him of these characters because they are from “opposite ends of the world.”
“The bond that those guys have got has been amazing and it's been one of the neater things that I’ve dealt with,” Izzo said. “I'm sure Rock would say that, and I'm sure Arnie would say that.”
With the story idea planted in my mind, I rushed to the locker room to find Watts and waited until I could talk to him alone to get his input. When I finally asked him about his friendship with Ahrens that Izzo had mentioned, he immediately referenced the mentorship aspect to their unexpected relationship.
“My first time on campus, he was like a big brother to me,” Watts said. “He told me he was going to have (my back) the whole way.”
Ahrens’ statement of having Watts’ back was put to the test early on, when Watts sat almost the entire month of December due to a stress reaction injury in his left leg.
Ahrens, who dealt with more than a fair share of injuries throughout his five years, became the mentor.
“When I was injured, I didn’t really know how to go about that because I never had a big injury my whole career,” Watts said. “He's been through a lot of injuries. He was just talking to me, giving me advice and telling me, stay working on my game.”
Izzo said during their year as teammates, Ahrens contributed a lot to Watts’ progression as a player.
“He has done so much for (Watts),” Izzo said of Ahrens. “I appreciate (Ahrens) for not quitting on me and not quitting on himself.”
I started this story on senior day, a day I never expected would be the last day of the season.
“Leaders got to lead, and other people will follow,” Ahrens said. “We have to continue to prepare each and every one of these guys because in March you don’t get a second chance, it’s win or go home.”
Little did he know there wouldn’t even be a chance in March. But that doesn't eliminate the mentorship legacy that Ahrens left behind and the friendship he found in Watts.