Niyo: Rocket Watts hits liftoff at optimum time in Spartans’ resurgence

The sophomore guard scored a game-high 21 points three days after getting benched…

Niyo: Rocket Watts hits liftoff at optimum time in Spartans' resurgence 1
Niyo: Rocket Watts hits liftoff at optimum time in Spartans' resurgence 2

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

East Lansing — They needed more from everyone to get where they wanted to go, and to get where they always expect to be this time of year.

“The time,” as the Spartans’ Joshua Langford put it Sunday, “where Michigan State is at its best.”

But more than anything, they needed this from Rocket Watts. They needed liftoff to take a load off, and that’s exactly what they got from their enigmatic sophomore guard, whose season-long struggles had been hard to understand and even harder to overcome on many nights for Tom Izzo’s team.

But here at the Breslin Center on the final Sunday of the regular season, Watts was the catalyst in Michigan State’s 70-64 upset of archrival Michigan. And maybe the reason the Spartans’ 22-year NCAA Tournament streak will continue, as Sunday’s win almost assuredly clinched a berth for his team, which will be the No. 9 seed in the Big Ten tournament, opening against No. 8 seed Maryland on Thursday in Indianapolis. 

Watts scored a game-high 21 points to lead Michigan State as it completed its season-ending gauntlet — seven games in 16 days — with a third win over a top-five ranked team in that stretch. That exhausting and exhilarating run should be more than enough to push the Spartans off the bubble and into March Madness, probably even avoiding a First Four game, something that seemed unlikely a month ago.

“Yeah, if I had a vote, I’d vote us in,” said Izzo, whose team was the clear aggressor Sunday, as promised.

And feared, from Michigan’s vantage point, which was further obscured by injury after Sunday’s loss, with senior guard Eli Brooks’ left ankle in a walking boot — the result of an awkward landing in the lane early in the game.

“We just pray that he gets back healthy,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “That’s the most important thing.”

That wasn’t the only thing that concerned the Wolverines about their play Sunday.

“We come here complacent and get blasted,” senior Isaiah Livers said. “That’s just how it works in college basketball.”

Yet for Michigan State, this was a lot of hard work finally paying off. And when it was finally over, there were too many emotions roiling Sunday to even worry about politicking. Fresh from a postgame water fight in the MSU locker room, Izzo was emotional as he talked about what his team overcame to get through this season. This group might not raise a banner, but they did uphold a standard. Raised it higher, even.

“This team should be appreciated by our fans for what they went through and what they gave us,” Izzo said.

Mom watching

Watts gave the Spartans something extra Sunday, and it showed before, during and after the game, when he actually caught Izzo off guard, telling him that his mother had been in the stands to watch him play for the first time in his college career.

“Even tough-old Rocket was in tears,” Izzo said. “And those are the kind of things that make the job worth the job. … Too see how much that impacted him, that was pretty cool.”

So was seeing how much Watts’ play impacted the game Sunday, less than 72 hours after getting benched for most of the second half in Michigan’s Big Ten title-clinching win over the Spartans in Ann Arbor.

Among other things, Watts was guilty of not diving on the floor for a loose-ball rebound in one sequence that Izzo and his staff found particularly galling early in the second half. So he sat and watched the final 17 minutes as the Wolverines rolled their rivals en route to a title.

“I was real mad at myself, not the coaches,” Watts said Sunday. “I know I could’ve played a lot better, and harder, at Michigan.”

After a couple encouraging days of practice, Izzo said he sensed a calmness about Watts when he checked into the game at the first media timeout Sunday. He also saw him doing what the coaches had asked — the sort of things that only he can do on this roster, really. Attacking Michigan’s defense off the dribble, getting downhill and giving the opponent someone else to worry about beyond Aaron Henry, who laughed and admitted he’d given Watts the green light himself at one point Sunday.

“He was scoring the ball and making plays and coach was trying to get me involved and (I’m like), ‘Rocket, go ahead. Go. Go have a day.’”

Watts’ shot selection has been a stumbling block throughout his career, and there probably were a couple Izzo could’ve done without Sunday.

“But a couple isn’t as bad as whatever,” Izzo shrugged.

And whatever prompted this performance, whether it was getting benched a few days ago or seeing his mom among the couple hundred family members in the stands — “I just got real happy and excited,” Watts said — Izzo will take it, no questions asked.  

Few double digits

Watts had scored in double figures just twice in 19 Big Ten games this season, but he already had 11 at halftime in this one, working off ball screens and knocking down pull-up jumpers. He went on to finish 8-of-16 from the field, with four assists, four rebounds and only two turnovers, though the last of those did extend the drama a bit in the final minute as Watts’ stepped on the sideline when Michigan applied a full-court press.

It was the kind of performance we saw from Watts near the end of last season, when his offensive outburst helped Cassius Winston carry the Spartans to a third consecutive Big Ten title. It’s also what the coaches hoped and expected when this helter-skelter season began, with Watts initially assuming the lead guard role before relinquishing it as Izzo turned to freshman A.J. Hoggard and Foster Loyer at the point.

But to see it now, with everything on the line for Michigan State this weekend, well, it was a sight for teary eyes, to be sure.

“Oh, man,” Langford said. “Words can’t explain how proud of him I am. I’m with him every day. I’ve seen the work that he’s put in, I’ve had the conversations with him about just how well he wants to do for this team. …

“It hasn’t been an easy year for him, you know? And to see him have this game, it’s just awesome.”

So was Langford’s senior moment, for that matter. His 3-pointer over Chaundee Brown with 49 seconds left was the biggest basket of the afternoon, coming just after the Wolverines had rallied from a double-digit lead to make it a one-possession game. With Michigan showing a 2-3 zone defensive look, the ball swung to Langford for an open look.

“The whole bench was, like, ‘Shoot it!’” the fifth-year senior captain said.

The voice in his head was saying the same thing.

“So I shot it,” he laughed.

And when it went in, “I just looked up at the heavens,” Izzo said. “If there’s ever a kid who deserved some success, it was Josh.”

And if there was ever a time for a game like this, getting contributions from everyone in the Michigan State lineup — from Henry and Watts to Joey Hauser (11 points, five rebounds in 17 minutes) and even former walk-on Jack Hoiberg — it was now.

Or never, perhaps, though Izzo has been careful not to pile on any added pressure for his players with talk about the NCAA streak these last few weeks. They’ve dealt with enough as it is this season.

“The mental and emotional weight that’s put on to us, that hasn’t been easy to carry,” Langford admitted.

But Sunday, they all got the lift they needed. And then they celebrated as a team, which is still something of a tradition in East Lansing in the month of March, in case anybody had forgotten.

“It was just a great day for everybody,” Henry said. “From the fans all the way to the people on the court, it was a fun day. A good Sunday. A great Sunday.”

And maybe not the last, after all.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

Big Ten tournament

March 10-14

Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

Wednesday, March 10

Game 1: 13-Minnesota vs. 12-Northwestern, 6:30 p.m., BTN 

Game 2: 14-Nebraska vs. 11-Penn State, 25 min. after GM 1, BTN

Thursday, March 11

Game 3: 9-Michigan State vs. 8-Maryland, 11:30 a.m., BTN

Game 4: 5-Ohio State vs. Game 1 winner

Game 5: 10-Indiana vs. 7-Rutgers, 6:30 p.m., BTN

Game 6: 6-Wisconsin vs. Game 2 winner

Friday, March 12

Game 7: 1-Michigan vs. Game 3 winner, 11:30 a.m., BTN

Game 8: 4-Purdue vs. Game 4 winner, 25 min. after GM 7, BTN

Game 9: 2-Illinois vs. Game 5 winner, 6:30 p.m. BTN

Game 10: 3-Iowa vs. Game 6 winner, 25 min. after GM 9, BTN

Saturday, March 13

Game 11: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 1 p.m., CBS

Game 12: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 25 min. after GM 11, CBS

Sunday, March 14

Championship game: Game 11 winner vs. Game 12 winner, 3:30 p.m., CBS

Eastern Standard Time

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