Dandron: Spartans can compete for national title, but Watts must lead

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Rocket Watts warms up at the Breslin Center. (Credit: Ian Gilmour / WDBM)

Joe Dandron, Station Manager

Editors note: Spire Academy is located in Ohio, not Indiana, as previously stated.

EAST LANSING – Rocket Watts Jr. came out of Spire Academy in Ohio as a four-star recruit with all the pressure in the world to perform for the team that he grew up idolizing.

From Detroit, Watts is a star. But it hasn’t been like this for much of the year, a kid who tentatively drove to the basket early on this year, is averaging 12.2 points per game since Feb. 1, the freshman has changed the outlook of not just his season – but his team’s as well.

The Spartans, just as soon as many thought their season was over, changed the trajectory from a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, to a potential share of the Big Ten regular season title with a win against Ohio State on Sunday.

When you watch Watts, you sense a confidence I haven’t seen in a freshman on this Michigan State team in a while. He has his downfalls: poor shot selection, heat checks or a turnover after scoring five straight points.

It’s that mentality he has at such a young age. That’s why he starred in a road win over a top-10 Maryland team, scored 16 points in a road loss to Wisconsin.

Of any of the players on the roster, it’s strange that with the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year – the hopes of an NCAA tournament run rests on the shoulders of one of the team’s youngest members.

“I’m just hooping, man,” Watts said after practice on Thursday. “The game is starting to come easy.”

Easier and easier it has come for the freshman. Michigan State is on a four-game winning streak largely on the back of Watts’ play.

Against Penn State on Tuesday, the Spartans fell behind early and trailed by 15 at the half. Then Watts and Michigan State came alive.

Watts is the type of dude to beat your ass, then tell you how he’s gonna do it.

But the frosh isn’t the only reason for the recent surge.

The offense has opened up, the ball screen-heavy action between the star tandem of Xavier Tillman and Cassius Winston has begun working on all cylinders. A 5-1 record in the last six games has shown that Michigan State is a national title contender. It’s that simple.

I get how a team led by two of the best players in the Big Ten in Tillman and Winston can easily be seen as being led by those two. But this MSU team is more than that.

Kyle Ahrens has turned into a one-three-a-game high motor beast on the perimeter. And as Michigan State fans thank god, Aaron Henry is the best defender on the team who can also put the ball in the hoop. All of the sudden, this team looks far improved from the squad that got throttled by Duke at home.

I expect Michigan State to be on the three seed line, it’s where Joe Lunardi of ESPN has the team in his most recent bracket projections (as of March 6) with the Spartans playing in Cleveland against Colgate.

Regardless of seeding, you’d have to think that Michigan State is just as good of a contender for the Final Four as anybody – the home win over a then top-15 Seton Hall shows this team can go into any environment.

But the pitfalls of the team are hard to ignore.

Rebounding the ball and playing consistent offensively were a problem earlier on in the year. But switching to lineups with an experienced Ahrens at the 4-spot and Tillman at center have allowed the Spartans to play faster and become a different team on offense now that Ahrens has provided enough shooting to help the starters.

It’ll be hard to get past blue bloods if your Michigan State, but falling into a region with Louisville, Creighton and Gonzaga as your biggest contenders will surely help.

A win against Ohio State this weekend is telltale, especially with the Buckeyes taking down Illinois on Thursday at home. The Buckeyes are rolling after a midseason slump, now the Spartans have a chance to prove they are the NCAA contender they can be.

Whats next:

No. 16 MSU (21-9, 13-6 Big Ten) will take on No. 19 OSU (21-9, 11-8) on Sunday. That game can be found locally on 88.9 FM WDBM in Greater Lansing and will be broadcasted on WLNS Channel 6 (CBS). Tip-off is set for 4:30 p.m. EST.

Follow Joe Dandron on Twitter @JosephDandronMI.