Freshmen Rocket Watts, Malik Hall soaring as Spartans chase Big Ten championship

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

College Park, Md. – There’s never been much doubt that Michigan State will go as far this season as its two veteran stars – senior guard Cassius Winston and junior center Xavier Tillman – will take it.

The duo has had its ups and downs on the court at various times this season, but even as they’ve both been pulled by things happening off the court, they’ve still been the heart and soul of the Spartans. On a lot of nights, that’s good enough, but it won’t win a Big Ten title and it most certainly wouldn’t carry a team to the Final Four.

Michigan State guard Rocket Watts drives to the basket against Maryland guard Eric Ayala during the first half.

That’s why what happened on Saturday at Maryland – and over the last couple of weeks, really – was so important to how No. 24 Michigan State closes the season now one game back of Maryland in the conference standings with two games to play.

It was in the Spartans’ 78-66 victory over the Terrapins on Saturday when the supporting cast, namely freshmen Rocket Watts and Malik Hall, established themselves as key parts of the rotation. That burden has fallen mostly on sophomore Aaron Henry, and for the last handful of games, he’s been the player the Spartans need.

But the way the two freshmen played on Saturday, it was a sign neither are playing like freshmen any longer. Hall was big early in the game, finishing through contact to score around the rim then grabbing tough rebounds and hitting a couple of shots in the second half. Watts was busy blanketing Maryland’s Anthony Cowan most of the night before capping things off with five straight points – a 3-pointer from the corner and a pull-up jumper from the baseline – that tamped out the Terps’ final rally.

“My two freshmen really played extremely well,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Rocket did an unbelievable job on what I think is one of the great players in our league and it’s been a privilege to have him in this conference for four years. Cowan is a hell of a player and we put two guys on and most of the night with Rocket and then we put Aaron Henry on him for a little bit more size.

“But those two freshmen, (Watts) and Malik Hall, really played well and Aaron Henry did a lot of great things too. And so we got more basketball out of more people.”

It’s what Michigan State (20-9, 12-6 Big Ten) has been trying to do all season and finally seems to be getting as it has brushed off losing four of five to win three in a row and actually have a shot at grabbing a share of a third straight Big Ten championship, something that seemed like a longshot only two weeks ago.

Michigan State forward Malik Hall shoots a jumper during the first half on Saturday night.

Watts has had a hand in all of it as he’s steadily improved since missing four games in December with a leg injury. He scored a career-high 21 in a win at Illinois then matched that on Tuesday in Michigan State’s victory over Iowa. Shot selection has been getting better, too, while Watts has become a standout defender.

“I'm letting the game come to me, staying aggressive,” said Watts, who scored 13 against Maryland. “I don't take a lot of crazy shots and just play defense and keep my guys around me.”

It’s been the natural progression Izzo has expected from Watts.

“He's doing what freshmen do,” Izzo said. “It’s  a process. You get better and he is getting better. He plays so hard that I think he brings some energy to the rest of our team, and a little bit of toughness.”

While Watts has been slowly building throughout the season, it’s been tougher for Hall. Caught in a four-man rotation at the power forward spot that includes sophomores Thomas Kithier and Marcus Bingham as well as freshman Julius Marble, Hall has started eight games but has only shown flashes of what he accomplished back in November when he scored 17 in a victory at Seton Hall.

On Saturday, it all came together as Hall scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds. He was aggressive from the outset, scoring through contact on two straight possessions while grabbing critical rebounds in the second half.

That intensity has been something he’s been trying to bring on a more consistent basis.

“I talked to a couple of the coaches on the staff,” Hall said. “There’s people outside watching you and they’re just like, ‘You need to be more aggressive, you need to start going at people a little more.’ I think that’s been the root of it.”

It’s coming at just the right time for the Spartans. They head to Penn State on Tuesday before closing the season at home Sunday against Ohio State.

There’s a chance winning out could mean at least a share of the Big Ten, but if it doesn’t, it would still allow Michigan State to build momentum heading into the most important part of the season. And the play of the freshmen will be important.

“It’s that time of the year,” Winston said. “They’ve been through a lot of wars, a lot of battles, been through a lot of ups and downs. That’s part of being a freshman, but we put a lot of faith in those guys, put a lot of confidence into those guys to make those plays.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau