Saturday afternoon marks the final home game of the regular season for the University of Utah men's basketball team; it's also Senior Day at the Huntsman Center. This year only one senior, Jay Watkins, will be honored by Jim Boylen and his staff, and his season was really over months ago.
In many ways, it has been a rough two years on the Hill for the man teammates call "J-Wat." But frankly, it's been an interesting and wild journey for Watkins ever since leaving Hamilton High School in Memphis five years ago.
He began his career in fine form at the University of San Francisco in 2006 for head coach Jessie Evans. Watkins was named to the All-West Coast Conference freshman team and appeared to be on his way, until Evans was let go at the end of Watkins' freshman campaign.
As Evans departed, so did Watkins. He landed at the College of Southern Idaho and played for now Ute assistant coach Barrett Peery. After redshirting his first year at CSI, Watkins led the team in minutes played, was second in scoring and third in rebounding. He would then follow Peery to Utah, where the plan was to become a front-court force at power forward. But injuries would sidetrack those plans.
Watkins began his career as a Ute on the sidelines nursing a stress fracture in his hip, that caused him to miss the first nine games of last season. Then when he was finally healthy he suffered another setback. Although not a physical setback, this was much worse.
Watkins' stepfather, John Smith, died of a brain aneurysm in January of last year, just before the team's big win at LSU. Then finally, when it looked like things had turned for Watkins midway through this season, he suffered yet another injury, an abdominal strain that sent him to the sidelines. But through it all you never saw anything but a smile on his face, a kind word or fist bump from the 6-8 junior.
After all he had been through since leaving Memphis, this was going to be his year! He was going to be counted on to lead Utah as the lone senior and one proven low-post scoring and rebounding option at the power forward spot. He was going to help the Utes leave the Mountain West Conference on a high note.
Then the injury bug bit again. This time to his back. Not one but two bulging discs have sidetracked what was supposed to be a fine final season of college basketball. Watkins was able to gut out 13 games through the pain and discomfort, but after the conference opener against Air Force, the back was so bad that Watkins had to just shut it down for the season.
After 36 games, the Utah career of Jay Watkins was done. Some guys might feel sorry for themselves. Some might even lash out at their bad luck. What did Watkins do? He continued to be the good guy and teammate that he has always been. Whether helping out at practice or cheering on the bench during games, Watkins has continued to be a big part of Utah basketball.
I hope that Ute fans turn out Saturday afternoon at the Huntsman Center to support an improving basketball team in its final home game of the regular season. But I also hope that Ute fans turn out to say thanks to Jay Watkins.
I will talk to you tonight from Moby Arena in Fort Collins as the Utes try to make it four in a row when they face the Rams.
Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah on game days and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show" on ESPN Radio 700 AM.
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