MSU's heralded freshmen get first taste of the big stage, and it shows

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

New York — Coming into Tuesday night’s game against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he wanted his freshmen to feel a little nervous.

As Izzo said before No. 1 Michigan State took on No. 2 Kentucky, he wanted “their eyes to pop,” when they entered the mecca of basketball to play in a marquee event with the best teams in the nation.

Michigan State guard Rocket Watts passes during the first half.

Well, the eyes popped as Kentucky rode its best freshman — guard Tyrese Maxey — to a 69-62 victory over Michigan State, the fourth straight for the Spartans in the Champions Classic. And while Maxey was busy burying the Spartans — his deep 3-pointer with a minute to play proving to be the dagger — it was more of a mixed bag for the Michigan State freshmen.

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Guard Rocket Watts started and had his moments defensively, but he missed all four of his shots and committed three turnovers in nearly 22 minutes of action.

“Rocket found out what it’s like to be in this,” Izzo said. “I thought he was pretty good defensively; he just didn’t do as much offensively.”

Watts was expected to be the first guard coming off the bench, but when senior Joshua Langford was declared out until at least January because of a lingering foot problem, it thrust Watts into the starting lineup.

He got an assist on Michigan State’s first possession but from there the offense was tough to find for most of the night against an athletic Kentucky team.

“I don’t feel like it was them defensively,” Watts sad. “We weren’t locked in and that was my first game and the shots weren’t falling. But I feel like I did a good job on defense and we’ll bounce back. We just weren’t hitting shots. It’s like that sometimes. You have those nights, but we’ll bounce back.”

Forward Malik Hall had an equally uneven night.

When sophomore Thomas Kithier drew his second foul early in the first half, Hall was the first off the bench at the power forward spot. But he picked up two quick fouls and ended up playing only a little more than nine minutes with three rebounds while going 0-for-2 from the field.

Forward Julius Marble also saw some time in the first half as the fouls mounted. He played 4:19 and grabbed a pair of rebounds.

“I felt like Malik tried to do too much and was out of control out there,” Izzo said. “It wasn’t a lack of effort he just didn’t play smart. … And we got something out of Julius.

"I really thought he played the most physical of all the guys in there.”

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Bingham gets the call

It wasn’t just the freshmen that were seeing significant minutes for the first time.

With Kithier and Hall in foul trouble, that led to sophomore Marcus Bingham getting almost 11 first-half minutes. He responded with five first-half points and six rebounds. It was some of his best action yet as a Spartan but it was mixed in with some youthful mistakes as he finished with seven points and six rebounds but also a pair of turnovers.

“He had some good things, the problem is in the second half there were things you didn’t see,” Izzo said. “Marcus took a step forward, let’s put it that way. We still got a lot of work to do there.”

Bingham’s seven points were a career high while he was just a few seconds shy of matching his career-high of 11 minutes. The six rebounds were two better than the four he grabbed three different times as a freshman last season.

“I was moving too fast throughout the whole game,” Bingham said.

“Faster than I usually do. But I felt like if I could knock down a couple of shots it could have changed the game.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau