As Minnesota skyscraper Joel Przybilla made painfully clear Tuesday night, the Virginia men's basketball team still is looking for size in the paint. The Cavaliers don't have a top-level seven-footer to bang with the likes of Przybilla, but the big man revolution is well underway in Charlottesville, thanks to first-year power forward Travis Watson.
In the first six games of his collegiate career, Watson has more than lived up to his advance billing and has established himself as one of Cav Coach Pete Gillen's most valuable soldiers. With the wingspan of a condor, the 6-foot-7 bruiser can corral rebounds of all shapes and sizes and has shown a surprising touch from the outside.
Even with a subpar performance against Arizona State brought on by flu-like symptoms, Watson is averaging almost 13 points and more than nine rebounds per game. He has put up 15 or more points four times and owns a pair of double-doubles, helping the Cavaliers to a 4-2 record.
Watson, who is listed at 251 pounds, made his memorable orange and blue debut Nov. 19 against Elon. The Brookneal, Va., native poured in 15 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, generally dominating the Fighting Christians in only 19 minutes on the floor.
"Travis was a one-man show," said center Colin Ducharme, who has returned from the ankle injury that wiped him out last season to help Watson on the front line. "We didn't really need anybody else. He was killing guys out there. Fifteen points, 14 boards -- there's not much more you can do."
Elon Coach Mark Simons, who watched Watson play in a 19-and-under AAU tournament in Cleveland this summer, is another believer.
"I told our kids before the game Travis Watson can be -- and I quote -- a beast on the backboards," Simons said. "I guess he proved me right."
Watson's stellar play thus far has raised more than a few eyebrows in Cavalier country, but it has not surprised his teammates.
"He's been playing really well in practice," Ducharme said. "We see that every day. You [media] guys only see it [in the games]. It's no real surprise for us."
The Cavs maintain that Watson is just scratching the proverbial surface of his potential. The 18-year-old sprained his right ankle this summer and re-aggravated it on his first day of practice at Virginia. That recurring injury and the calcium deposit that followed have kept Watson from getting into top-notch shape.
"He's got to lose a little bit of weight, got to get his wind better," Gillen said. When he does, "he'll be even better."
Watson, who owns one of the better intimidating on-court glares in the ACC, usually betrays little emotion when he's dealing with reporters, but a smile creeps across his face when the subject of his conditioning comes up for the umpteenth time.
"I think I'm in good playing shape, but not [good] enough," Watson said. "I'm going to work on it and [Coach Gillen] knows what's best so whatever he says, I'll listen to. That's good because it's motivation."
After leading Oak Hill Academy to three undefeated seasons and two USA Today national titles, Watson is no stranger to success. Unlike less mobile big men, he also is intimately familiar with an up-tempo style like the one Gillen employs.
"I'm used to it because of the high school I came from," Watson said. "We had a sort of offense just like this, so it really wasn't a big change from high school to right now."
Watson's high school success caused many recruiting experts to rank him among the best prep power forwards in the nation. Along with Cavalier teammates Chris Williams and Adam Hall, Watson was one of 16 finalists for the USA Basketball Men's Junior World Championship team this summer, but he withdrew before the final roster was selected when his mother fell ill.
Watson hasn't missed a beat in his transition to college, but he will find a whole new level of opposition once the ACC season gets going. At only 6-foot-7, will he be able to bang with the tallest trees in the Conference? Watson has faced that question before.
"There were a lot of people that dogged me because of my height," Watson said. "But right now I'm just doing my best. People describe me all different ways. All I know is I go hard"