Monday, September 27, 2021

3 takeaways and a progress report: MSU men's basketball starts 2-4 in Big Ten play

January 28, 2021
<p>Sophomore guard Rocket Watts (2) moves with the ball during the game against the Detroit Titans on Dec. 4, 2020, at the Breslin Center. The Spartans were tied with the Titans at halftime, 35-35.</p>

Sophomore guard Rocket Watts (2) moves with the ball during the game against the Detroit Titans on Dec. 4, 2020, at the Breslin Center. The Spartans were tied with the Titans at halftime, 35-35.

Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

The Michigan State men's basketball team has played a total of 12 games in just under two months, with four postponements due to COVID-19 issues within programs.

Their 2020-21 record through 12 games is 8-4, with losses to Northwestern, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue.

At this same place during the 2019-20 campaign, they were 9-3, with losses to Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Duke.

The key difference? All three losses last season came in the non-conference slate. Michigan State is 2-4 in Big Ten action so far in 2020-21. Even if Trevion Williams misses the game-winning shot in Purdue's comeback win in East Lansing, MSU is still 3-3 in conference play with several cancellations further complicating an already weird year.

The records are similar, but MSU was in a very different place this time last year. Oh yeah, they also had All-American Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, who recently got  his first career NBA start.

We've gotten glimpses of both high and low scoring games, but whether at 109 points or 54 points, Head Coach Tom Izzo isn't the only one who notices there's something lacking.

Could it be that their once well-oiled rebounding machine has started to rust, with the green and white only currently out rebounding their opponents by 5.3 per game?

MSU is allowing opponents this season to shoot above 40% and score more than 70 points per game. That's seven points higher than last year when the Spartans held opponents to under 65 points a game.

In the gauntlet that is the Big Ten men's basketball season, here are three takeaways from the Spartans' 2-4 start in the conference.

Xavier Tillman's absence is hurting MSU

After Tillman chose to leave his final season behind and enter the NBA Draft, MSU has had to fill a void in their defense.

Tillman was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and made the second-team All-Big Ten in March 2020. He was the fifth Spartan in history to be given this title, joining former lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr., who he now plays with for the Grizzlies.

If we take a look at the statistics, 12 games into last season, Tillman had already snared 88 defensive rebounds, the most on the team. He ended his final season with a total of 237 defensive boards while averaging 10.3 total rebounds per game.

This season, Joey Hauser is the only athlete to come close to Tillman's numbers, with 80 defensive rebounds himself after 12 games. In the one season Hauser spent playing at Marquette from 2018-19, he only managed to tally a total of 150 defensive rebounds.

The next highest scoring defensive rebounder this season is Aaron Henry, averaging 5.6 per game.

Tillman was a leader both on and off the court. He made everyone around him better. That fact is why he already starts for his NBA team. 

The man does his job, he does it right and he does it well. Without him, MSU has fallen victim to unseen and unheard opponents.

During the regular 2019-20 season, Tillman made it almost impossible to score on him, averaging more than two blocks per game. He gained steam as the week went on and performed admirably against threats such as Penn State’s Lamar Stevens, Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson and former Big Ten Player of the Year, Iowa’s Luka Garza.

Defense is everything to Izzo, as fans know.

In an interview with Big Ten Network’s Mike Hall, Tillman said that his best defensive tactic, if he had to pick one, would be his communication.

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“I make a huge point to point guys in directions, be the traffic cop for our team,” he said. “Getting guys over screens, telling guys to watch out for screens and just being that help-side guy for sure.”

Who will be the next Tillman? MSU hasn't answered that question and if they can't, this season might end earlier than fans hope.

Henry has shown promise, but his consistency is lacking

Henry has talent, both physically and intellectually. 

He too entered his name in the 2020 NBA Draft, but didn't hire an agent and returned to school. 

He’s a solid athlete that plays with toughness and showcases athleticism on both ends, imposing his will at times on opposing wings and in the post.

However, as a captain, he’s lacking something important: consistency.

When the school’s winter break started, Henry’s mojo seemed to go on break as well.

He barely scored against Northwestern on Dec. 20, 2020, against Wisconsin on Christmas and against Minnesota on Dec. 28, 2020, not scoring more than 12 points each time.

Out of 142 field goals attempted, he's shooting just above 43%. But on 35 attempts from three, he's only made nine for an average of 25%. The junior started the year 3-for-19 from behind the arc.

Henry needs to be more consistent in today's basketball landscape if he wants to lead this Spartan team.

He averages 13.9 points and averages 29.7 minutes per game. 

He also holds the most assists tallied on the team with 44.

But, with the new year came new chances and a new Henry, that we’ve been able to see at least.

It was during the game against Rutgers, when Henry scored 20 points in a win over the ranked Scarlet Knights that again brought up what everyone wonders is possible: Henry can be the leader of this team. 

Something had clicked within the Indianapolis native’s mind and unsurprisingly the two games Henry had shined in are the only two conference wins for the squad.

Can Rocket Watts find his stride? It's yet to be seen

The sophomore guard is alike and unlike Winston, who went on to be drafted by the Washington Wizards after graduation.

Watts does things that Winston never could in ways he could not: score. Watts isn't the passer that Winston was and to compare him to a two-time All American and MSU's all-time leader in assists is unfair to an extent.

Winston ran Izzo’s offense by the book, and it paid off. He ranks among the best of the Izzo era, having ended his time at MSU with a career-high of 32 points and the title of 2018-19 Big Ten Player of the Year.

Watts, who was in the ESPN Top 100 recruits for his class, made incredible strides in his first three months on campus. In his second year now, he’s made himself a household name, much like Winston had done. Except, he hasn’t seemed to have proven to Izzo that he deserves the hype.

It's showing up in the stats, too: He has only scored in double digits once since Dec. 6, 2020. 

Out of 12 games played, Watts has only started in seven, having been replaced by freshman A.J. Hoggard and instead taking his turns coming into the game off the bench. He’s ranked third on the team, averaging 9.7 points and 22 minutes per game.

Watts is a solid and strong, competitive and tough player who has the skills and ability to be dynamic in the position he plays. He has a rare combination of strength, speed, athleticism and shooting ability.

But he needs to put it all together if it is going to work this season.

Only time will tell if Watts is capable of that. 

This article is part of the 'We Can't Forget' print issue. Read the entire issue here. 

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