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Penn State Hoops’ Mike Watkins Has Been A Defensive Monster

Penn State men’s basketball’s turnaround from a forgotten entity in the Big Ten to a bona fide conference title contender has happened thanks in large part to increased contributions from several key players. Lamar Stevens’ impact in his return to the lineup is unquestionable, but he’s gotten plenty of help — particularly from his big men in the low post.

Senior forward Mike Watkins is definitely hard to miss whenever he’s on the court. Watkins has provided the Nittany Lions with fantastic defensive performances throughout his career, but he’s truly reached an elite level throughout the 2019-20 season. The big man may be Penn State’s most widely-recognizable player aside from Stevens, but just how good has he been?

Watkins has been a rebound machine since the beginning of his time at Penn State. He’s now up to 944 rebounds throughout his college career — a mark that ranks second in program history behind the great Jesse Arnelle. His rebounding output has even gone up after last year, going from 7.4 boards per game last season to 7.7 this year.

In addition to his rebounding, Watkins has been a juggernaut in the other two main defensive statistics: blocks and steals. He is second in the Big Ten with 64 blocks in 2019-20 — already far above the 41-block output he registered last year. Watkins also has 23 steals this season, and that’s a byproduct of Penn State’s aggressiveness in swiping the ball away. Jamari Wheeler and Myreon Jones have led the way for the Nittany Lions in this aspect.

Head coach Pat Chambers has taken a “day-to-day” approach with Watkins, trying to maximize his productivity while on the court. Because of this and heavy rotation with fellow big man John Harrar, the Philadelphia native has averaged a little more than 21 minutes per game this year. His numbers per 40 minutes showcase just how talented he is.

For context, “per 40” stats take into account how a player would likely perform if they were to spend every second of a game on the floor. This obviously isn’t feasible for the vast majority of college basketball players, but they do a pretty good job at gauging what type of impact players make when they’re on the court.

As you can see here, Watkins’ defensive output per 40 minutes is, quite simply, the best in the Big Ten.

Data from

To be fair, this metric could be somewhat skewed because it tends to favor rebounds over the other two stats, but it’s realistically the simplest evaluation of overall defense available. On top of that, Watkins is in first place by a pretty comfortable margin, essentially cementing himself as one of the most talented defensive players in the Big Ten.

Watkins and the No. 16 Nittany Lions will be back in action at noon on Saturday for an away game against No. 18 Iowa. You’ll be able to catch the action on the Big Ten Network.

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About the Author

Richard Smeltzer

Richard is a junior majoring in applied statistics at Penn State. He is originally from York, Pennsylvania, and spent his first two years of college at Penn State York. Being from a family filled with Penn State alumni, he has been deeply ingrained in the culture. Growing up a Baltimore Orioles and Miami Dolphins fan, he has experienced many hardships throughout his life. You can find him screaming into the void about these teams, and much more, on Twitter @SecretRichardS.


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