MSU's Thomas Kithier shows 'positive' signs, earning Tom Izzo's confidence

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – Tom Izzo has made it clear from before the season began that the power forward spot would be a work in progress.

That became certain when Michigan State got the news that transfer Joey Hauser’s waiver for immediate eligibility had been denied by the NCAA, leaving things up to a rotating group of inexperienced players.

During No. 16 Michigan State’s victory Saturday over Oakland, the most experienced of the group had Izzo second-guessing the rotation he and assistant Dwayne Stephens employed. Sophomore Thomas Kithier, who started the first five games of the season, scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds in just less than eight first-half minutes before playing less than a minute in the second half.

Michigan State's Thomas Kithier lays in two points in the first half.

“He should have played more,” Izzo said, chiding himself and Stephens for not getting Kithier more involved in the second half. “He played well, he defended well, he rebounded well, he scored well. That was a positive.”

It’s been a bit of an up-and-down start to the season for Kithier. After showing promise in limited action last season, the 6-foot-8 forward moved into a starting role to open the season and was solid in the first four games.

After some defensive struggles in the loss to Virginia Tech to open the Maui Invitational, sophomore Marcus Bingham moved into the starting lineup and has been there since, while freshman Malik Hall continues to see consistent playing time and freshman Julius Marble has slowly been getting on the court more often.

Kithier, meanwhile, has had to adapt to fewer minutes. Before Saturday’s performance, he’d been struggling against some bigger lineups, namely Duke and Rutgers. But the impact he had in the first half was a reminder of what he can bring.

“He knows the game so well,” junior big man Xavier Tillman said. “If I'm rolling to the basket, he’ll still be at the basket but he'll be behind my man. I mean, he's he knows the game really well.”

There’s been a notable change for Kithier the past two games – he’s no longer wearing the clear, protective mask.

Kithier broke his nose in practice just before the season began and was stuck wearing the mask for the first eight games of the season. It came off last Sunday in the win over Rutgers and Kithier couldn’t be happier to no longer be dealing with the mask while on the court.

“I hated playing with the mask,” said Kithier, who admitted the mask limited his vision during game. “You might as well have put a football helmet on me at that point.”

With the mask now gone, Kithier is doing his best to be ready no matter how much time he’s getting in each game.

“You’ve just got to stay mentally ready,” Kithier said. “It’s kind of a revolving chair at that position. I think all the guys are mentally ready to play. Whichever guy has the hot hand is who they’re going with right now.”

More: Michigan State vs. Oakland series takes root in Detroit

Kithier, Bingham and Hall have all had their moments, which makes figuring out the position even more difficult as Michigan State (7-3, 1-0 Big Ten) returns to Big Ten play Wednesday with a trip to Northwestern.

“I thought Marcus played better did a pretty good job when he was in there,” Izzo said after the Oakland victory. “And Thomas Kithier deserved to play way more minutes than he played. I thought he played really well. Malik struggled because he was sick before the game and didn't handle it very well.

“And like I said, Bingham takes a lot of crap from everybody, but he's getting better and we're going to need that size sometime. And that was the first time we played Julius much and I still like Julius and so it's going to be by committee at that four spot.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau