Just one year ago, the NCAA declared Mike Watkins academically ineligible and the freshman forward was forced to sit for the entire 2015-2016 campaign for the Penn State Nittany Lions. Watkins is back now and is making a splash for this young Nittany Lions squad, which was in dire need for a big change.
The team was 9-4 in out of conference play last season, but then stumbled to a 16-16 record after a tough Big Ten slate, which included seven NCAA tournament teams. The Nittany Lions are 8-5 going into conference play this season, but they could see more success as the conference isn’t as top heavy with powerhouses, and the team is studded with rising talents like Watkins.
With leading scorer and rebounder Brandon Taylor graduating after last season, many worried that the frontcourt would suffer. Watkins has put those doubters to rest and has rejuvenated this young, but highly talented group.
Watkins is everything you could want in a young player, who’s only going to get better. He does all the little things on the defense, as he’s currently second in the Big Ten and sixth in the country in blocks at 3.3 per game. He also leads the team in rebounding at 8.4 per game, while managing to score in double figures on 55 percent shooting from the floor. Head coach Pat Chambers also called him one of the best passers on the team, which is a huge help for this team that likes to get the ball up and down the floor quick in transition.
“When Mike gets engaged, he really gets us going,” said Chambers about Watkins energy. “Mike brings that juice, that energy, and that passion. He’s protecting the paint and protecting the rim for us.”
Watkins was recently named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week after his performance against St. Johns, where he scored 15 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, had four assists and recorded three blocks. This was the first time a Nittany Lion player has earned the award since it began in 2010, and I don’t think this will be the last time for Watkins.
The freshman also wrote his name in the program’s record books, as he is the first freshman to record three double-doubles in a season since 2003. With 18 games left, it’s more than likely that he’ll have a few more to pad his stats.
Watkins will become even more important to the Nittany Lions as the team gets geared for Big Ten play, as the conference plays host to some of the premiere big man talent in the country. He will only continue to improve going against this stiff competition, night in and night out and it is safe to say that Penn State fans have to be excited for the improvement of their young big man and what the future holds for this program.