Undersized Center Became Rebounding Force, Four-Year Starter, Master Of
By Jeff White
Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
March 10, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE The greatest rebounder ever to don a Virginia uniform stood 7-4 and thus literally towered over the college basketball world. No. 2 on UVa's all-time list is a senior who's officially listed at 6-8. But the gap between Ralph Sampson and Travis Watson might be closer to 10 inches, said Steve Smith, the head coach at national power Oak Hill Academy in southwest Virginia. Watson spent the 11th and 12th grades at the boarding school in bucolic Mouth of Wilson.
I thought we stretched him, Smith recalled with a laugh. We called him 6-7.
Whatever his actual height, this much is certain: Watson generally has given away inches to the players he's battled in the post, be they Alvin Jones, Brendan Haywood or Carlos Boozer. That hasn't kept the 255-pound left-hander from putting up numbers many seven-footers would envy.
It was a challenge, Watson said, and I stepped up to every challenge, and sometimes I overachieved. Ö I'm the type of player that I don't want to get shown up by any opponent. We're going to go at it.
Virginia coach Pete Gillen said: He doesn't back down. You need that. You need some toughness.
A San Antonio native who moved from Dallas to Virginia after his ninth-grade year, Watson has averaged at least 11 points each season in Charlottesville and recently won the ACC's rebounding title for the second straight year. He has far and away the most career double-doubles (53) of any active player in the conference.
Watson, 21, also closed the season strong to become the first Wahoo since Sampson in 1982-83 to average a double-double. He leads the Cavaliers in steals, too.
He's great, Duke said Mike Krzyzewski said last month at University Hall, after his final regular-season encounter with Watson. I told him after the game what an honor it's been I don't know if we'll play again to compete against him. He's a kid that, I think, everybody in our league would like to coach.
Small wonder, then, that Gillen, whom UVa hired in March 1998 to revive a moribund program, so desperately wanted to land Watson. Gillen put his top recruiter on the job, and the tireless Bobby Gonzalez followed Watson to Russia, among other places.
Watson had posted modest numbers as an Oak Hill junior he averaged 9.1 points
and 8.1 rebounds but there was an explanation: The Warriors' seniors that
McDonald's All-American center Kevin Lyde (Temple) and forwards Jules Camara (Kentucky) and Antwan Scott (Wake Forest).
If there were any doubts about Watson's talent, they disappeared the summer before his senior year, when he starred for the U.S. team in the World Youth Games in Moscow. In the gold-medal game, Watson had 21 points, 10 rebounds and six steals in an overtime victory over Russia.
I just fell in love with him, recalled Gonzalez, now the successful head coach at Manhattan. I just thought he was one of those undersized warriors that Pete Gillen had so much success with at Xavier and Providence.
Gonzalez's relentless pursuit of prospects is legendary. Even by his standards, however, this was no ordinary courtship.
That's the hardest I personally, individually, ever worked on one kid, Gonzalez said. I was so locked in and focused, I was obsessed. I lost a girlfriend in the process. I was a madman. I just thought he was a cornerstone guy, as were Roger (Mason) and Majestic (Mapp), a foundation for the program.
Virginia finished 14-16 in 1998-99, Watson's senior season at Oak Hill. A year later, the Cavaliers won 19 games and advanced to the NIT. They won 20 in 2000-01 and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. They climbed to No. 4 in the polls in early 2001-02, though that heady period proved short-lived.
Watson committed to UVa in October 1998 after also considering such schools as Michigan, Clemson, Texas and Florida State. As an Oak Hill senior, he shot 71.3 percent from the floor for a team that went 31-0 and ended the season ranked No. 1 in the nation.
He hoped to win a national championship at UVa, too. Barring a miracle, that's not going to happen. Still, Watson said, I don't have any regrets. I wanted to be a part of something, to build a program.
What most attracted UVa's coaches was the quality that has long separated Watson from other players: his ability to rebound. As Oak Hill's Smith recalled, I used to tell him in games, ëBubba, go get us the ball. We got to have it. Nobody else is going to get it.' Watson said: I just always had an eye for the ball. It's just how bad you want it. The whole game I'm going after it.
His determination was evident immediately. In his college debut, Watson grabbed 14 boards in 19 minutes. In his first ACC game, he totaled 17 points and 16 rebounds against mighty Duke, no less. He ranked fourth in the ACC in rebounding as a freshman and second as a sophomore.
It seems like he goes after every rebound, like all great rebounders do, Maryland coach Gary Williams said. He seems to be able to wedge his body in a position where you don't get a clean shot at the rebound.
Watson, who's on track to graduate this spring with a degree in anthropology, will leave Virginia ranked among the top 15 rebounders in ACC history. At UVa, only Sampson and Chris Alexander blocked more shots than Watson. He's a four-year starter who has received conference accolades each season, starting when he made the All-ACC freshman team in 1999-2000. He made the All-ACC second team as a sophomore and junior.
My career's been fun, Watson said recently. I've met a lot of people, done a lot of things. I set goals and I've achieved a lot of them, so I'm happy right now.
Those comments, however, came before the Cavaliers, who collapsed over the second half of last season, found themselves in another full-fledged swoon. The team's decline coincided with a significant dropoff in Watson's production he had six points against Duke, three against Wake Forest, eight against Florida State and disciplinary measures against him by Gillen.
It's not good to do that at the end of your senior year, Smith said. His team is struggling a little bit, and he seems to be struggling a little bit.
Late in the regular season, Gillen twice punished Watson for violating team rules. None of the infractions was serious, but the timing couldn't have been worse, and UVa's coaches and its fans expected more of a team captain.
After Virginia suffered its sixth straight defeat, Gillen said: I hate losing more than anyone, but I'm disappointed because we're not doing what we're supposed to be doing. It would be nice to have the veterans doing the leading.
For many seniors see Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter in 2001-02, Josh Howard and Edward Scott this season their final campaigns are a series of moments to treasure. Watson's final season at Virginia, however, has been anything but storybook.
There have been numerous memorable moments, such as the January night when Watson, with 21 points and 20 rebounds against Wofford, became the Cavaliers' first 20-20 man since Sampson nearly 20 years ago. But his focus has seemed to waver at times. To Gillen's frustration, Watson missed considerable practice during the regular season because of nagging injuries and, occasionally, academic issues. The absences took a toll on Watson's game, particularly his ball-handling.
Same old story, Gillen said. He gets hurt a lot, he misses practice, so he's not in sync.
Moreover, Watson's much-anticipated move to power forward met with mixed reviews. Through Watson's first three seasons, during which he thrived at center, he spoke often of his desire to move to his natural position. The presence of 6-10, 255-pound Nick Vander Laan and 6-9, 270-pound Elton Brown has allowed Gillen to play Watson more at the four spot, but the shift hasn't paid significant dividends.
Watson's assists are at an all-time high, but so are his turnovers. He's shot poorly from the perimeter. After making seven of 14 attempts from three-point range as a junior, he converted only six of 26 from beyond the arc (23.1 percent) during the 2002-03 regular season. That hasn't raised Watson's stock in the eyes of NBA scouts, who see an undersized post player with an inconsistent shooting touch.
Among the ACC players who returned this season, Watson was the only one who made first- or second-team all-conference in 2001-02. As such, he figured to be a legitimate candidate for ACC player of the year. He's no longer a contender for that award, which no Cavalier has earned since Sampson in 1983, but Watson remains a force.
If Virginia is to win an ACC Tournament game for the first time since 1995, Watson probably will have to lead the way. He's been to the NCAA Tournament only once UVa lost in the first round two years ago and doesn't appear to be headed back.
Not achieving that, I can get over that, Watson said, but like I said, it's not over with, and we can still try to get there.
In sitdown interviews, Watson smiles often. That's a side of him not often seen on the court, where he wears a serious expression that seems to warn opponents to keep their distance.
I have fun, he said, I just don't smile. I'm not out there to smile. I'm not out there to make friends. I'm out there to win the game.
And, of course, to rebound. Few in the ACC have done it better.
It's all basically heart and desire, Smith said. There's some technique, but you have to want to get the ball.
Watson said: I just like to play ball. I have a passion for the game. I only know how to play one way, and that's how I play every time.
Watson At Virginia
Among UVa leaders in rebounds (2nd), blocks (3rd), points (14th)
Three-time second-team All-ACC, if he earns honor this season
Three-time ACC leader in double-doubles; total of 53 for career
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