Michigan State's Rocket Watts has made 'incredible strides,' will start vs. Albion

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – At least one hole in Michigan State’s starting lineup has been filled.

Coach Tom Izzo said Monday that freshman Rocket Watts will start at shooting guard on Tuesday night when the No. 1-ranked Spartans host Albion in an exhibition game, the last tune-up before next week’s season-opener against No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Rocket Watts

“He will be in the starting lineup,” Izzo said. “I'm very pleased to say that this kid has made incredible strides in the three months he's been here. When I look at when he came in, he's been an unbelievable teammate. The one thing he does give us he's got that tenacity like Keith Appling as defensively he can get after it a little bit. And he didn't shoot very well early, but he's starting to shoot the ball better just probably because he's feeling more comfortable.”

Who would start at the other good spot along with Cassius Winston became a question last week when it was announced senior Joshua Langford would be out until at least January as he deals with a setback in his recovery from the broken ankle that ended his season after only 13 games in 2018-19.

Add in the high ankle sprain for fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens, and the chance for Watts to grab the spot existed. How he plays on Tuesday will help determine, along with Ahrens’ status, whether Watts gets the call against Kentucky, but Izzo made it clear he’s getting Watts ready for that possibility.

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“I don't know if he's ready for the moment,” Izzo said. “I really don't care if he's ready for the moment. We're going to get him as ready as we can get him, but we also understand that he's going to make the same freshman mistakes as Miles Bridges made and Jaren Jackson made and, you know, Josh Langford, halfway through his freshman year we were still getting him to work.

“But the kid has been fun to coach. He's confident without being cocky and I've been really impressed with what he's done.”

As for Ahrens, Izzo said he’s been dealing with a high ankle sprain suffered in the Gonzaga scrimmage and that he will not play against Albion. Beyond that, his return remains a question mark but it doesn’t sound like a long-term issue.

“We will make sure we're not going to play him hurt, that's for sure,” Izzo said. “But we also are going to want him to play.”

Nod to Kithier?

The other hole in the lineup, of course, is at power forward.

That’s been the one Izzo has known about all offseason and at this point he said he’s leaning toward starting sophomore Thomas Kithier over sophomore Marcus Bingham and freshman Malik Hall while freshman Julius Marble has also worked at the four.

“I brought in all four of them,” Izzo said, “and I told them all last night, ‘Right now, if somebody wants the job, you got to step it up. And if it's going to take some time we're going by committee for a while.’”

Kithier is the steadier option and has played well with Xavier Tillman. However, Kithier will also back up Tillman at the five, leading to some rotation issues.

But with so many big games early in the season, Izzo tends to feel more comfortable with Kithier.

“We're still hoping that Marcus is the guy that will step up,” Izzo said. “And so in Thomas Kithier’s case we just need to get off to a decent start in these big games. And that’s one problem with the schedule, you know that we aren't going to get anybody in there early that can relax and you can experiment a little bit. So I think we're going to go that route, but I can honestly say we're not sure.”

The chances of that starting four becoming transfer Joey Hauser remains up in the air.

Izzo said on Monday there still has been no update on the appeal Michigan State filed after the initial waiver to the NCAA for immediate eligibility was denied.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau