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While No. 1 Michigan State returns one of the country’s most experienced teams for the 2019-2020 season, the Spartans still have high expectations for their freshman class.
The highly touted class, made up of Mark “Rocket” Watts, Julius Marble, Malik Hall and Steven Izzo, is already turning heads and earning the praise of head coach Tom Izzo with the season opener against No. 2 ranked Kentucky rapidly approaching.
And with some question marks in the rotation following the news of Josh Langford’s injury that will keep him out until at least January and news of Joey Hauser’s appeal to be immediately eligible being denied by the NCAA, it’s safe to expect the freshmen to have an opportunity to make a significant impact early in the season.
Watts, who was the top rated prospect in Michigan State’s 2019 class (No. 39 according to 247 sports), got a late start in joining the Spartans, but is already getting up to speed and is expected to play a key role in Michigan State’s backcourt rotation.
Izzo told reporters that after Watts missed the first six weeks of summer workouts, he’s already improving his shooting and is proving to be one of the Spartans’ best defenders.
“Rocket is starting to – he missed the first six weeks of the summer and I thought that set him back a little bit, but lately, he’s starting to shoot the ball better,” he said. “He could be one of our best defensive guards also. He’s tough, he’s athletic, and he’s a really good defender. He’s worked hard to get that shot back, but I’ve been a little surprised at how well he’s passed the ball.”
Watts said that he was excited to hear his coach praise his defense and admitted that he feels Izzo has pushed him to become a better defender since he joined the team.
“It means a lot to me,” I didn’t really know that I could play defense like that,” he said. “But coach really pushed me, coached me hard and really made me play. I feel great. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t playing defense (in high school), but no one was coming at me as hard and really make me play defense.”
Izzo said that Watts’ athleticism and toughness are two areas that separate him from most and added that Watts reminds him of some other guards from the city of Detroit that have played for Izzo over the years.
“I think a little bit is on the athleticism because he is a phenomenal athlete,” he said. “But I think it’s more that he’s kind of got that, you know – like the reason Keith Appling and some of those guards that are from Detroit – there’s a certain toughness that I think you bring from that city and I think he has that. He’s not afraid to climb into you, he’s not afraid to get into you. He’s got the athletic ability to do it, but I think he’s got the heart to do it and that’s a big, big factor.”
Although Hauser’s appeal to become immediately eligible was denied and Izzo and Michigan State are re-appealiing the NCAA’s decision, but for the time being, the Spartans will look at a number of options to play significant minutes in Hauser’s place.
Sophomores Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier are the likely candidates to start at power forward, but both Marble and Hall should get more than a fair share of opportunities to contribute at the position.
“Malik Hall and Julius Marble are a little bit clones, one’s a better shooter that would be Malik, one’s a little bit tougher, that would be Julius,” Izzo told reporters at Michigan State’s basketball media day. “But he’s caught our eye in the preseason, Julius. After sitting out a while, we look at him as an Andre Hudson type guy, that can shoot it a little bit, but can play in the post and not be afraid to be physical. Malik, he’s a very good rebounder, but he can shoot it better and is a 3-point shooter.”
Marble, who is a physical post presence, admitted that he wasn’t quite ready for the physicality of the college level when he first arrived on campus, but feels that he is continuing to adjust and now feeling like he’s more confident in practices against Xavier Tillman and the rest of the frontcourt.
“I’m starting to get back into it,” he said. “I’ve just been playing with these guys for a while now and I’m getting used to the physicality better than I was earlier in the summer. So now I’m seeing I can hit with X (Tillman) a little bit more or get a little bit better positioning on Marcus or making sure I’m in the best position offensively.”
Similarly, for Hall, he also noted that playing against an experienced, physical player like Tillman in practice, has helped him make big strides in getting ready for this season.
“On the court, I’d definitely have to say X (Tillman),” he said. “He’s just so physical, he’s a lot bigger than I am – he’s done a great job with his body, so that helps a lot. Just being focused and locked in on him helps me a lot.”
In addition to taking over for Hauser, the Spartans need to account for the loss of Kenny Goins at the power forward position from a year ago, as the former walk-on proved to be an invaluable contributor on both ends of the court.
As far as who may be able to at least help fill that void, Izzo said that he feels that from an athleticism standpoint, Hall may be able to step in and also added that the
“I need people that can hit an open shot, I need people that can make a pass, but I need people that can guard,” he said. “Kenny was a guy we could switch a lot with, but Kenny, as I watched those games the other night that I watched, phenomenal rebounder – he averaged almost nine rebounds a game at 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 max. Those guys now, everybody wants to hand around the perimeter. Kenny hung around the perimeter a little bit and still found a way to get there using his athletic ability. I think a guy like Malik can do that. I think he’s got the athletic ability and strength – in fact, all three of them have strength… Those three guys are tough enough to play right now and that makes a big, big difference.”
The fourth member of Michigan State’s 2019 class, Steven Izzo, the son of the Spartans’ longtime coach, is one that likely won’t be the subject of many headlines, but it already making a lasting impression on his teammates.
Tom Izzo told reporters that his son has been putting a lot of time doing some things that tend to get overlooked and added that the two have are also having the chance to make up for lost time as well.
“The last one is the unsung guy in Steven, my son, and he too has been very committed to what he’s doing,” he said. “What he’s doing is a little different than the other guys. He’s been part of learning how to be part of a team, learning how to work. He’s been on the scout team, he’s kind of been the manager that does all the drill work with them. All the time I missed in high school, I probably made up for in the three weeks they’ve been practicing – I made up for the 16 games I missed his senior year. So I figure I’m getting something out of it. Hopefully he’s getting something out of it. Most importantly, I think he’s a good teammate and a good locker room guy for the rest of the guys.”
In a relatively short amount of time on campus, Steven Izzo admitted that he’s already seen a big improvement in his game both from a mental aspect and from an improved play perspective.
“I have improved a lot, I’d say, and I think the coaches would say so too, as well as all of the players,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten a lot better, just more knowledgeable on what to do in situations and how to take care of the ball.”
With the season quickly approaching with a showdown against No. 2 ranked Kentucky to start the 2019-20 season coming up on November 5th, Watts said that he and the rest of the freshman class are meshing together well and ready to make an impact.
“We’re all bonding together,” he said. “Malik, Marble and Steve-o, we have a couple of classes together and we just vibe pretty well. They are great guys and I can’t wait to start the season with them.”
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