East Lansing — Hold off on the Rocket Watts statue for a game or two, at least.
That was the message from Michigan State coach Tom Izzo on Thursday, two days after the freshman guard scored a career-high 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting in a 70-69 victory over No. 22 Illinois.
“We’re just going to keep building with Rock and it will probably be a couple more games before we are building that statue next to Earvin’s,” Izzo said with a laugh, assuring that Magic Johnson’s statue won’t be getting company anytime soon. “Let’s not put the carriage before the horse here a little bit, but now what we're looking for is steady improvement.”
That steady improvement from the young guard has been happening ever since he returned from a four-game absence in December because of a stress reaction in his leg. Watts took some time to get back in the starting lineup, but over the 4-5 weeks, he’s starting to put it all together.
His performance on Tuesday was by far his most efficient game as he was the early offensive catalyst as the Spartans built a 20-point lead early in the second half. As important as the scoring, though, was that Watts didn’t take a single shot that could be classified as a bad shot. It was the perfect example of how quickly he is maturing and becoming a reliable piece to the Spartans’ success.
In addition to already being one of Michigan State’s best defenders, becoming an efficient scorer is a huge step for Watts.
“He’s played better the last five, six games and he's been really good defensively,” Izzo said. “He’s starting to figure out transition defense because he’s struggled with that a little bit and he started to figure that out.
“But as I’ve said before, he's been fun to coach and everybody thinks he's gonna take every shot and do everything, but he likes to pass and he's learning what are good shots. But he's tough and I love tough guys. He’s tough, he plays hard and when I say to the rest of the guys, ‘You gotta help Rock. He's (guarding) the best player.’ And it’s usually, ‘Coach, I don’t need any help.’ Out of a freshman, you love that.”
Watts is on the same page with his coach when it comes to toughness. In fact, he thinks the entire team has it and never bought into the idea the Spartans (17-8, 9-5 Big Ten) had lost any of their swagger. Even in the midst of a three-game skid, Watts knew the fight was there and that came out at Illinois when the Spartans allowed a big lead to disappear didn’t end up losing. Instead, the Spartans proved to themselves how good they really can be.
“First of all, we never lost the toughness or the swagger,” Watts said. “We were just in a slump. Teams were coming out and hitting us first. So, no, that's something the whole team has got. We’ve all got swagger and toughness and I feel like when we’re connected and come out with it, no team can beat us. So we need to work on coming out with that every game.”
Michigan State will need to do that Saturday when it hosts No. 9 Maryland (20-4, 10-3) at 6 p.m.
It will be a festive day as the 2000 national champions will be on hand to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Izzo’s only national title, ESPN "GameDay" will be on hand and new football coach Mel Tucker will be introduced at some point during the game.
To get a win that would thrust Michigan State right back into the thick of the Big Ten race, it will be counting on Watts’ continued progression. Whether he continues to do it from the starting lineup remains to be seen, but what he must bring is the tenacious fight that Izzo loves so much.
“A guy won't start because he scores 20 points,” Izzo said. “A guy's gonna start because he's tough and he plays hard as hell. If one guy's not playing as hard as the other guy, someone else is gonna start. That's the deal we made with them to try to hold this accountability factor that we need to try to get them to be consistent.”