Posted Apr 14 2012 10:04PM
The difference between stardom and anonymity in college basketball can sometimes come down to a hot shooting day.
Such was the case last month for the University at Buffalo and its best player, senior forward Mitchell Watt, who in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference tournament fell victim to a hot-shooting Ohio team that drained 10-of-19 3-pointers to just 1-of-10 for the Bulls. Ohio went on to face Akron -- a team Buffalo had swept during the regular season -- squeaked out a one-point victory and earned its way to the NCAA tournament, where it proceeded to beat Michigan and USF en route to the Sweet 16.
The result: Ohio guard D.J. Cooper, if only for that glorious week in the Big Dance, was a household name. Everyone who didn't know it before suddenly realized that CBS college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg's son Nick was the Bobcats' starting shooting guard. And John Groce, Ohio's fourth-year coach, parlayed the extended NCAA journey into the head-coaching job at Illinois.
As for Watt, well, the regular-season MVP in the MAC, robbed of his One Shining Moment opportunity, has been spending the last couple of weeks on the road in New Orleans (for the Reese's College All-Star game) and Portsmouth, Va., (home of the Portsmouth Invitational) showcasing his skills, trying to do enough to compel an NBA team or two to invite him in for a tryout.
Based on his play in the PIT, his mission has been successful so far. He blasted out of the gate in his first game, scoring 11 points and grabbing rebounds, but more importantly blocking seven shots. Here was ample evidence of why the 6-8, 220-pounder is also known as SWatt.
Watt backed that up with 14 points, seven boards and a couple more blocks in his second game. In his third and final game, in the consolation bracket, Watt came up with a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) and four more blocked shots.
Watt's three-day handiwork didn't surprise the Buffalo coaching staff, most notably assistant Turner Battle, who has spent the last three weeks putting the big man through his paces in individual workouts.
"He's always had potential," Battle said. "He didn't play a ton of organized basketball until he got to high school. He had a lot of raw ability but was never really taught until he got here. He developed every year and got better, and toward the end of his senior year, everything clicked.
"He was the man for us the last half of the season."
Battle is uniquely qualified to discuss Watt's progress, given that the two men have walked similar paths. Only two players in Buffalo history have been chosen MVP of the MAC. Battle was the first in 2005. And only two Bulls have taken part in the PIT. Battle was the first, using the tournament as a springboard to continue his career and see the world while playing in Estonia, France and Sweden.
"I think the NBA scouts are intrigued with [Watt's] skill set and size," Battle said. "And I think if they bring him into camp, he's going to be successful, and he could play at the next level in the right situation.
"Will it happen? I really don't know. But he's going to make a lot of money playing, no matter if it's in the NBA or overseas."
Not that many PIT alums head off to the NBA. But the tournament has always provided players like Watt the opportunity to earn exposure. Watt's story is a good one to be exposed.
The only reason the Buffalo coaches found out about the raw, lightly recruited big man four years ago was that they were recruiting another player in Watt's home state of Arizona and just happened to stumble upon him. They were taken aback that he had given a verbal commitment to Cornell but otherwise wasn't being flooded with mid-major scholarship offers.
"We couldn't believe he was still available," Battle said. "We all agreed we had to get him. He committed to us in March of his senior year in high school. And we all though we had found a sleeper, a diamond in the rough."
That's exactly what they found, but Watt's career nearly ended before it really began. The summer before his sophomore season, he started suffering double vision and pain in his head and neck. Walking, and even standing, became difficult.
A neurologist eventually diagnosed Watt with Guillan-Barre Syndrome, a condition that occurs when the body's immune system attacks part of the nervous system. He was faced with the possibility of never playing again.
Watt was lucky in that he eventually responded to drug treatment. But he had to relearn how to walk, then run. By late October, Watt was dunking. He somehow got through his sophomore season despite constant battles with fatigue, but he didn't want his fight with the disease made public.
Midway through his junior season, Watt was back to his old self. In the middle of a senior year in which he would average career highs in points, rebounds and blocked shots, Watt finally told the media about his sophomore year struggles. One can safely assume that after facing the possibility of not walking, his three days at Portsmouth weren't so daunting.
Battle thinks Watt will also be ready to handle himself during individual workouts with NBA teams.
"His ceiling is very high," Battle said. "I think he's just scratching the surface. I've been working him out the last three weeks, and he surprises me every day with the things he can do.
"He can do some things athletically that some guys can't. I really believe if he gets in the right situation, he can play in the NBA."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.
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