CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Brandon Watkins might have redshirted this season if Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton were eligible, and he might have spent most of Saturday night’s game on the bench if Devin Williams had played with the usual zest.
But circumstances conspired to force Watkins into action, and West Virginia’s 6-foot-9 freshman delivered an eventful performance to become an unlikely choice for MVP of the Capital Classic.
“I really needed this game,” Watkins said after producing 12 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and two steals in a 74-64 win over Marshall. He made 5-of-6 shots in the second half and played a season-high 25 minutes, precisely 25 more than he played in Tuesday’s loss to No. 20 Gonzaga.
“I was really down after the Gonzaga game,” Watkins admitted. “I knew I needed to go hard in practice and get my mind right.”
Having struggled to execute offensive sets through his first 10 college games, Watkins foresaw not only a lack of playing time this season, but also daunting odds for the situation improving next season—when Macon and Holton presumably will join the active roster.
Said Watkins of a chat with assistant coach Erik Martin: “He talked to me and he let me know what’s up. He said, ‘If you really want to play, you’ve got to start playing now, because it’s an opportunity.’”
With fellow freshman Williams generating more turnovers (three) than shot attempts (two) against Marshall’s interior defense, Bob Huggins turned to Watkins. The NCAA’s 16th all-time winningest coach said Watkins had shown strides during the 72 hours since the DNP against Gonzaga.
“Brandon wasn’t playing very well and wasn’t into it very much, so I didn’t play him,” Huggins said. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to play you until you get with it,’ and he turns around and has two good days of practice.”
In the crucial final six minutes against Marshall, Watkins was active and aware—putting back a Juwan Staten miss and taking a pick-and-roll feed from the guard on a set the Mountaineers call “Louisville.” On the defensive end, Watkins disrupted a high ball-screen and scrapped for the loose ball before signalling timeout from the floor.
“His awareness on the court was great and he seemed to find the ball every time it came off the rim,” said Staten. “We wouldn’t have won this game without him.”