Mike Watkins A Bright Spot During Penn State Hoops’ Rough Big Ten Stretch
After missing the first game of the season and averaging 10 points per contest through Penn State men’s basketball’s first seven games, Mike Watkins didn’t exactly explode into his sophomore season. The Nittany Lions were 6-2 with their first Big Ten game of the season looming at Iowa.
That’s when Watkins began to come out of his shell. The sophomore had back-to-back performances with a 9-13 stat-line against the Hawkeyes and Wisconsin. The results? 41 points and 15 rebounds combined in a road win at Iowa and a one-point loss to the Badgers.
From that Iowa game in early December until Penn State’s overtime loss to Minnesota on January 15, Mike Watkins scored in double digits every time he touched the floor. Twelve consecutive games scoring in double figures is no small feat, but Watkins put the cherry on top with how he ended that streak. The big man had a double-double in each of the last five of those games, averaging 17 points and 14.4 rebounds per game over that timeframe.
What’s even more impressive is that Watkins is leading the Big Ten in field-goal percentage at a 70.8-percent clip, while slotting into second place in the rebounding column behind Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy by averaging ten rebounds per contest.
“Mike has been terrific,” head coach Pat Chambers said last week. “You’ve got to love his competitive fire. You can really tell he cares.”
Watkins gives it his all on the court, and for Coach Chambers, “That’s all I can really ask from him.”
For the season, Watkins has improved from his freshman campaign in almost every statistical category. The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 13.3 points each night to go along with 10 rebounds. He is also averaging three blocks per game.
Watkins’ teammates are noticing his ability and effort on the court, including veteran guard Shep Garner.
“He’s real active and has a lot of energy,” Garner said after the Minnesota loss. “That’s what Mike does, and when he brings it, we’re hard to beat.”
Watkins’ improvement came at a crucial time for Penn State, as Tony Carr’s slump over winter break, Josh Reaves’s never-ending suspension, and the lack of bench production have all slowly taken a collective toll on the team’s record. The Nittany Lions, however, aren’t dwelling on their missed opportunities.
“I think we have the right guys to win in the Big Ten,” Garner said. “It just didn’t work out tonight, but I think going forward we have the right team to be successful.”
Right now, the outlook for Penn State hoops is pretty grim. The Nittany Lions have suffered several losses in winnable games, and now face the toughest stretch in their schedule with a 3-5 conference record. The NCAA Tournament hopes that preceded the season are almost certainly dashed, and at this point the biggest questions are whether the team can salvage an NIT berth and what the future might hold for Pat Chambers.
While the numbers may have dropped off in Penn State’s recent loss to Northwestern, Watkins still tallied eight points and seven boards while hitting both of his field goals. The Nittany Lions finished the final 10:37 without scoring a basket from the field; however, they neglected to work in a single shot for their hot hand in the paint.
Expect the Nittany Lions to go back to the big man often in the upcoming games with physical opponents like No. 22 Ohio State, Rutgers, and No. 9 Michigan State on the docket. Whether the team uses Watkins or not, the sophomore will play a key role in these games that will decide the immediate future of Penn State basketball.