East Lansing — While Michigan State played without Cassius Winston for the first time in his career in Sunday night’s victory over Western Michigan, the Spartans did get some good news on the injury front.
Freshman guard Rocket Watts returned to the lineup after missing four games with a stress reaction in his lower left leg and finished with nine points and five assists in a little more than 12 minutes.
“Rocket was one of the guys that I would put on the plus side of things,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the 95-62 win to close out nonconference play.
Izzo wasn’t terribly happy with the play of some of his big men as No. 14 Michigan State (10-3, 2-0 Big Ten) gets set to return to conference action at home Thursday against Illinois, followed by Sunday’s showdown with No. 12 Michigan at the Breslin Center.
While Winston is likely to return for both games this week, getting Watts back was critical to the backcourt depth. Sophomore Foster Loyer had his best game in his first start, scoring 16 points and handing out six assists, but Watts can play both guard spots and fared well in both against Western Michigan.
He scored on two of his first three shots of the game — a floater in the lane and a 3-pointer — then played point guard for a long stretch in the second half.
“I thought he did a pretty good job," Izzo said. "He hadn't even played the point, you know, in practice, and we hadn't done anything in practice in three weeks, to be honest with you, but before that he was playing a little bit of it. Guarded pretty well, we just got a little confused with so many different lineups, which I think is bound to happen.”
Watts’ absence helped contribute to the different lineups that only were compounded on Sunday night by the fact Winston was out. But just getting Watts back into the rotation was important. The high-scoring guard had struggled to find his shot early in the season, entering Sunday’s game shooting just 27.4 percent from the field, including 20.7 percent from 3-point range.
His time on the bench, though, has allowed him to see the game a little differently after being thrust into the starting lineup to open the season because of the loss of Joshua Langford.
“The time that I was off, it opened my eyes a lot, seeing how Cassius runs the break,” Watts said. “When Coach put me at the one, that's what I'm supposed to do.”
The time off was something Watts was hoping he could avoid as he started the first eight games of his Michigan State career. Eventually, though, the injured left leg was too much to overcome.
“I didn't tell anybody that I was injured," Watts said. “I was just playing through it. Coach was watching film and he's seeing me limping and I wasn't getting any lift on my layups. When he saw that he came to me and told me to be honest, and I told him my leg was hurting.”
That led to the four games off as the Spartans were sure to not push things too quickly, choosing instead to play it safe. Watts was out for warmups on Dec. 21 before the Eastern Michigan game but did not play. After a couple of days of practice following Christmas, the decision was made to get back on the court.
“I never had a real injury,” Watts said. “It was kind of frustrating because I was trying to play through it and my coaches and trainers were just like, ‘No, you can't do that.’ I feel like my leg is good right now, and we’ll go from there.
“I feel better. I'm just blessed to come out for this game and play again.”