Capital Classic: Watkins a pleasant surprise for WVU
CHARLESTON, W.Va - On a night when he provided many surprises, the best came last for Brandon Watkins.
West Virginia's freshman forward was celebrating the 74-64 Capital Classic win, one he shaped greatly with his first career double-double, when he and the rest of the Mountaineers paused to watch Juwan Staten accept the game's most valuable player award.
The smile vanished from Watkins' face when it was announced he won the award after his 12 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and two steals helped WVU win beat Marshall for a third consecutive season, the seventh time in eight years and the 14th time in 18 seasons.
"I thought they were going to give it to Juwan or somebody other than me," Watkins said. "I thought I was just doing what I was supposed to do."
The prize came with an interview with the Capital Classic Network at mid-court of the Charleston Civic Center while photographers tried to take pictures of the rest of the Mountaineers with the game trophy. The players refused to do it until Watkins was done with his interview and could join the party.
"We're a family, we're a team and we want to make sure everyone feels that way," guard Gary Browne said. "He did an outstanding job stepping up. He did an amazing job. He's young and sometimes he doesn't understand little things become big things, but he's a good kid. He works his hardest in practice every day and now he's got a good game."
It was a stunner for the Mountaineers (7-4). Watkins didn't play in Tuesday's loss to Gonzaga and played only 2 minutes in the Dec. 5 loss to Missouri. His career totals were 26 points, 17 rebounds, one block and three steals.
Watkins shot 5-for-7 in the season opener against Mount St. Mary's. He was 7-for-19 the next eight games before going 6-for-7 against the Thundering Herd (4-6). He played 27 minutes, which was more than starters Devin Williams and Kevin Noreen - combined. Watkins had never played more than 18 minutes in a game and 26 in back-to-back games.
Truth be told, it didn't look like any of that would change, either.
"He had a couple of really good days of practice, but he wasn't playing very well," said Coach Bob Huggins, who won the 730th game of his career and is in 15th place on the NCAA Division I list of all-time winningest coaches. "He wasn't into it very much, so I didn't play him. I told him, 'I'm not going to play you until you get with it.'"
Noreen struggled for just 7 minutes and actually shot an air ball on a layup. Williams couldn't hang onto the ball, whether he was catching it, dribbling it or rebounding it, and played 16 minutes. Nathan Adrian, still bothered by a sprained ankle, had one turnover and no other stats in 4 minutes.
"I was running out of people," he said.
Watkins solved that for a night, and maybe longer.
"It's really good for us because we can actually say, 'Oh, we have one other guy to help us,'" Browne said. "Now we need to keep him going and keep on him every day in practice and every time we play a game and say, 'All right, you already did this once. You can do this again.'"
The Mountaineers are very much looking forward to his encore.
"I love when he gets in," Harris said. "He doesn't complain. He just does what he's asked to do."
WVU can think about asking more, and the timing is great for the Mountaineers. Adrian had been struggling with his offense before his injury and Terry Henderson had started in his place the past two games. Adrian and Watkins are different players and WVU can do more with Adrian in the game than with Watkins, but the Mountaineers don't play again until Sunday, when they play host to Purdue. They're off another week before playing William & Mary at the Civic Center Dec. 29.
"If Brandon could kind of learn a little bit more, he'd play more," Huggins said. "It's hard because we can't run anything with him. He hasn't figured out what to do yet. But he makes a difference around the rim and he scores a lit bit around the rim. He changes shots. He's the one guy we have who changes shots."
The 6-foot-9, 235-pound Watkins was an all-Metro Atlanta players last season at Grady High School in Decatur, Ga., and averaged 19 points and 14 rebounds per game. A year earlier, he averaged 5.8 blocks per game. His orders Saturday were to help WVU keep Marshall of the offensive glass, where the Herd had nine offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points in the first half, and to provide some kind of presence at the basket when Marshall got there.
It worked, but Watkins was also a part of the offense. He set screens for Juwan Staten when WVU needed points and he even rolled off the screens and caught passes from the point guard for simple layups. Not coincidentally, Watkins and Staten each scored 10 points in the second half. WVU's other seven players managed 23 points.
"He did everything he was asked to do," Staten said. "He played hard, but he scored, which was a bonus. We knew he'd bring in defense and rebounding, but he gave us a lot of points."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.