Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was disappointed in how his team played in a loss at Wisconsin but says protecting home court is critical vs. Penn State. The Detroit News


East Lansing – Tom Izzo often refers to Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman as Batman and Robin.

The senior guard and junior center are essentially Michigan State’s superhero duo. The Spartans will go as far as the standout tandem takes them.

“We have to get great play out of our two leaders and our two best players,” Izzo said on Monday.

For the most part this season, No. 16 Michigan State has gotten just that. However, consistency has been a problem at times – for Winston and for Tillman. In Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin, it was a miserable shooting day that caught up with Tillman, while Winston has been plagued by his share of slow starts in recent road games, a trend that has been mimicked by the rest of the team.

In those games, things typically don’t go well, as Michigan State has lost three of its last four games away from home, getting its only win at Minnesota when the Gophers couldn’t buy a bucket in the first half.

With so much riding on the way Winston and Tillman perform, Izzo has been harping all season on needing that third guy, the butler to his Batman and Robin, as Izzo explains it. The common belief entering the season was that player would be sophomore Aaron Henry. However, Henry has been wildly inconsistent this season. As an example, he was a big part of the win at Minnesota, but against Wisconsin Henry played nearly 36 minutes and made nearly no impact. He took just six shots, scored five points, had three rebounds and three turnovers.

It leaves the Spartans (16-6, 8-3 Big Ten) searching for that third contributor, someone they can turn to on a regular basis.

On Saturday in Wisconsin, freshman Rocket Watts took another step in proving he might be that guy.

“I was very pleased with the performance of Rocket Watts, who is getting better and better,” Izzo said. "I thought Rocket made some shots and that's going to be still up and down for a while, but I think he made some shots. He guarded people pretty good and he did a pretty good job defensively.”

Watts scored a career-high 16 against the Badgers with three of his four 3-pointers coming late in the first half when Wisconsin was on the verge of putting the game away before halftime.  

Watts continued to play well early in the second half as his running jumper and blow-by layup helped spark a 17-2 that got the Spartans back in the game.

“I thought his will to win was there,” Izzo said. “I like when a player tells me, ‘I can beat him here coach. I can do this there.’ That excites me.”

There’s no doubt Izzo and his staff had high expectations for Watts when they recruited him first out of Old Redford Academy in Detroit then SPIRE Academy in Ohio. He has a lightning quick first step and has a scorer’s mentality.

However, things have come slowly as Watts was forced into the starting lineup to begin the season because of the injury to Joshua Langford and missed four games with his own leg injury in December. Since getting back on the court, Watts has steadily progressed. His shooting continues to be erratic – Watts is shooting 27.5 percent from 3-point range – but his playmaking is starting to come and his defensive work has been solid.

It all means he has a shot to be that third guy, though Henry isn’t being written off by any means and there’s plenty of confidence in Gabe Brown, who was under the weather and played just three minutes at Wisconsin.

“Not at all,” Izzo said when asked if that was too much pressure on a freshman. “I see where somebody else can be, too. Maybe it's Gabe, maybe it's Rocket depending where Aaron is on things. But don't forget, Batman and Robin have to be there, too. We just don't have the consistency right now.”

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The consistency has lacked primarily on the road, where Michigan State is now 2-3 in conference play. At home, however, things have been far different as the Spartans’ smallest margin of victory at the Breslin Center in Big Ten games is 12.

The next edition comes at 8 p.m. Tuesday night as Penn State (16-5, 6-4) comes to town.

“They're a hot team right now,” Izzo said of Penn State, which has won four in a row. “So there's no question we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The matchup will be a chance for Michigan State to quickly get back on the winning track. It had won two in a row before the loss at Wisconsin, but the Spartans’ continued road woes have created a feeling of frustration around the team, primarily from those in the stands.

Izzo was quick to point out it was this time last season Michigan State lost three in a row.

“And the roof caved in,” he said. “Last year, the league wasn't half as tough as it is this year. We still lost three in a row and still made it to a Final Four and still won the Big Ten championship.”

After that skid, the Spartans lost just once in the next 15 games before their run ended against Texas Tech in the national semifinals.

Is a similar run coming soon this season? It’s difficult to predict in a wildly competitive Big Ten, but getting that third scorer will help. Even so, the Spartans still find themselves tied for first place with nine conference games to play.

“There’s no panic,” Izzo said. “We’re 8-3 for God’s sake.”

No. 22 Penn State at No. 16 Michigan State

Tip-off: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760

Records: Penn State 16-5, 6-4; Michigan State 16-6, 8-3

Outlook: MSU has won 10 of the last 11 in the series and hasn’t lost at home since 2009. … Penn State has won two straight conference road games. … Senior forward Lamar Stevens leads Penn State in scoring at 16.5 points while pulling down seven rebounds per game. … Penn State is second in the Big Ten in scoring offense (76.9 ppg).

Twitter: @mattcharboneau