When the Missouri men’s basketball team faces Bemidji State in its first exhibition game today, it will serve as a good opportunity for the team to retool and rebuild for the season opener.
For junior guard Marcus Watkins, who sat out last season after transferring from Texas A&M, the game will be more about revival, a chance to shed his cushy seat on the bench for a spot on the court.
“I am going it to treat as a real game,” Watkins said, “and it will be different playing against other people.”
Senior guard Jimmy McKinney, a close friend of Watkins, said though Watkins doesn’t walk around talking about finally playing, he definitely senses Watkins’ eagerness.
“I can just see it in his eyes,” McKinney said. “He definitely wants to show coach Q (Quin Snyder) what he can do.”
Watkins declined the NCAA’s offer to let him play last year because he felt he would benefit from getting acquainted with MU’s system and staff. But that didn’t mean his transition from player to bystander was an easy one.
“It was tough ... playing for all these years in a row and then all of the sudden not being able to play for a whole year
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was pretty devastating,” he said. “Once we started playing Kansas and Gonzaga, when the house was packed and the fans were really rocking, I really wanted to be out there. But all I could do was watch from the sideline.”
Worse than missing Missouri’s home wins against No. 12 Gonzaga and No. 7 Kansas last year, was sitting and watching as the Tigers struggled through much of the season. Missouri finished last season 16-17 and won only two of 12 games away from Mizzou Arena.
It also didn’t help that for some of those road games, Watkins had to stay at home.
“I knew he was hurting a little bit,” McKinney said, “because I knew he felt like he could have helped us with his ability.”
Although he did not contribute on the court, Watkins said the team will still benefit from his time on the sidelines last season.
“I got to look at the game from another perspective,” Watkins said. “A coach’s perspective, rather than the players’.”
A coaching perspective shouldn’t be unfamiliar. His father Melvin Watkins coached Texas A&M for six years before resigning in March 2004, He then joined the Tigers as an associate head coach in June 2004.
Marcus Watkins said aspects like help-side defense became more clear to him after his season on the bench.
“It’s really helped me out and its going to improve my game this year,” he said.
Last week at Missouri’s Black and Gold game, Watkins finally showed what he can do, scoring seven of the gold team’s 25 points, with a 3-pointer and two rebounds in seven minutes.
“This is the first time our fans and the team really got to see Marcus Watkins and he can really play and he was a monster,” junior Thomas Gardner said. “We haven’t really seen him that aggressive in practice and then when those lights come on he’s in the middle of making things happen.”
Although Watkins thrived offensively in the Black and Gold game, he said his role on this team is to be more of a defensive presence.
“My main focus is to be a defensive stopper, rebounder, and get baskets whenever I can,” Watkins said.
McKinney said what separates Watkins from most guards is his strength. At 6 feet, 4 inches, Watkins has the defensive versatility to defend forwards.
McKinney said he has benefited from matching up with Watkins during practices because Watkins is such a strong and quick defender.
“I feel like that if i can get my moves off on him, that I can get them off on anybody,” McKinney said.
Watkins credits part of his defensive ability to the times his freshman and sophomore year at Texas A&M, when in practices he was assigned to cover the Aggies’ Antoine Wright, whose versatility on offense drew the attention of the New Jersey Nets, who chose him with the 15th pick in 2005 NBA Draft.
“He definitely made me a better defensive player,” Watkins said. “It doesn’t get much harder than that.”