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December 29, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Watkins is earning his playing time

MORGANTOWN — When it occurred, it was one of those nice little stories that pops up every so often during the course of a season.

A seldom-used freshman comes off the end of the bench in a desperation move by a troubled coach and saves the day, often to never be heard of again as the more experienced veterans regain their positions and the coach’s confidence.

But this Brandon Watkins story is getting legs and may actually turn into a signature moment in a season that was in danger of becoming a second-straight losing season.

Watkins, you may recall, came off the bench two games back against Charleston after having not played in the previous game and having played just two minutes in the game prior to that, his practices having been so shaky that Coach Bob Huggins had deemed him unworthy of playing time.

But West Virginia was losing to Marshall and the biggest reason was that the Herd was being strong on the boards and fearless inside as WVU had no one to block or alter inside shooting.

Enter Watkins.

He came off the bench, scored 12 points and pulled down not only 11 rebounds but the game’s Most Valuable Player award.

That opened Huggins’ eyes to a kid he almost certainly would have redshirted had Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton qualified to play after transferring from junior colleges.

Watkins has strong WVU basketball bloodlines, being the nephew of Mountaineer Hall of Famer Warren Baker, who still has strong ties to the program and will be doing color commentary on this afternoon’s game against William & Mary in Charleston.

Watkins had grown up in Atlanta, a city kid who made second team Class AAAA All-State at Grady High.

He is tall and lean, was looked upon as a project, the kind of kid who has a lot to learn and who needs to build up his strength but who also has a lot to offer once he matures and learns how to play the game.

But the Marshall game opened Huggins’ eyes that he may have something to offer in the present as well as the future.

Against Purdue, as the Boilermakers continually took the ball unopposed to the basket, Huggins again turned to Watkins.

This time his shots did not fall, going 0-for-5 on the inside, tipping shots and trying to follow, but those eventually you know will fall.

What he did do was pull down eight more rebounds, block three shots and alter a number of others.

Put simply, he made a difference.

“He’s got to play — he’s earned it,” Huggins said. “He was further behind the other guys when we started, but he has probably made more progress than anybody.”

That is high praise from a coach who two games earlier wasn’t even using him.

Now, it’s true his game is raw. Against Purdue Watkins picked up four fouls while playing just 16 minutes.

“He just can’t get dumb fouls though,” Huggins said. “He got two dumb fouls that limited his playing time.”

If Watkins can learn from a Huggins crash course, he could give WVU a new dimension defensively heading into conference play, where the game changes dramatically and the talent level goes up.

To deal with the likes of Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Iowa State, WVU has to have inside defense and rebounding. For what Devin Williams does on the boards and as an offensive player, the freshman plays like a freshman on defense.

And there really is no one else ... so it would not be surprising to see Huggins using Watkins 20 or more minutes a game in conference play as long as he isn’t making a lot of freshman mistakes.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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