Everything Coming Together For Penn State Hoops’ Mike Watkins
It’s safe to say that senior Mike Watkins has made his mark on Penn State men’s basketball.
The Nittany Lions’ go-to big man over the past few seasons recorded his 800th career rebound in the second half of Penn State’s 76-54 drubbing of Wake Forest Wednesday night. Watkins became just the third Nittany Lion to ever reach that milestone and did so on a night where he couldn’t be stopped on the glass. The Philadelphia native tied his season-high by collecting 16 boards against the Demon Deacons, along with five blocks and three steals.
Watkins’ gritty performance against Wake Forest came after two double-double performances against Ole Miss and Syracuse at the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament. Head coach Pat Chambers described the two games as probably “the best back-to-back performances” he’s ever seen from the senior, as he put up 18 and 15 points in those games, respectively. He also finished the two games at the Barclays Center with a total of 24 rebounds.
“[Mike] is rebounding the ball, and I think he’s creating opportunities for himself,” Chambers said. “That keeps him going, and we also have a package for him where we want to get him the basketball. I think Jamari [Wheeler] is doing a really good job with that and understanding, ‘Hey the big fella hasn’t gotten a touch in a while let’s make sure we give him a look.'”
Chambers went on to say that Watkins has worked extremely hard to get to this point, and noted that this past summer was “one of his best ever on and off the floor.”
The big man’s ability to make plays on both sides of the floor has clearly been a massive factor in Penn State’s 7-1 start to the season, even if he isn’t always scoring at a huge clip. In fact, the senior didn’t even put up a shot or any points in the first half against Wake Forest. He started to come alive in the second half, though, as he scored seven points while shooting 3-6 from the field.
While his 11.3 points per game is a solid stat, what’s more impressive is Watkins’ 60.7% shooting from the field. He’s managed to stick to high-percentage shots throughout the season and adds serious value even when he’s not scoring.
The 6’9″, 257-pounder has recorded double-digit rebounds in half of the Nittany Lions’ games thus far and has rejected a shot in all but one game. These numbers have helped Watkins gain plenty of attention this season, as he’s starting to earn some recognition as arguably the best defender in the Big Ten.
Chambers mentioned that he’s certainly seen an improvement from Watkins this season in just about every facet of his game.
“Mike needs to continue to do the little things. I think you’re starting to see him in stances a little bit more. His post defense is a little bit better. His ball screen defense is a little bit better,” Chambers said. “He was playing so well [in both games in Brooklyn] that it was hard to take him out.”
Outside of pure statistics, Watkins has clearly been one of the leaders in hustle on Penn State’s team. The senior has consistently dove to the floor to collect loose balls, and his ability to force turnovers has been helpful in sparking fast-break points for the Nittany Lions.
Along with hustle, the senior has managed to stay out of foul trouble throughout this season — an issue that at times has plagued him during his Nittany Lion career.
“[Mike]’s starting to develop better habits in low post defense,” Chambers said. “[Assistant coach] Kevin Freeman has really worked hard with our bigs to get them to the point where we don’t have these silly fouls.”
Watkins will now have a chance to prove himself as a top player in the Big Ten when the Nittany Lions open conference play against No. 6 Ohio State this Saturday. The senior will go up against Buckeyes’ star forward Kaleb Wesson, who’s averaging 12.4 points and 9.3 rebounds this season. That test will be followed by a visit from No. 3 Maryland at the Bryce Jordan Center next Tuesday.
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“Get your shit together. Get it all together, and put it in a backpack. All your shit.”
For seniors, spring semester means the end of an era. What’s on your bucket list?
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