One of the big factors for the University of Utah basketball team this year has been the play of Walter Watts. And we do mean BIG.

Watts, all 289 pounds of him, has been one of the few bright spots on a Ute team that has seen its share of struggles this season. Since he broke into the starting lineup a month ago when Boo Singletary went in for knee surgery, the 6-foot-8 Watts has become a force inside for the Utes on offense. In nine starts he averaged 9.3 points and 5.6 rebounds a game, while on defense he has made his mark (sometimes literally) by putting his considerable weight into the opposing center.Now that Singletary is recovered from knee surgery, Watts may have lost his starting position for the season. Since Watts had the flu all week, Singletary replaced him against Hawaii and after scoring 17 points probably won his job back. However, Watts will be still be a big part of the Utes the rest of this year and for the next two years, in more ways than one. He's not about to fade into the background.

**** Watts made his way to Utah after being discovered by former Ute assistant Bob Burton in November of 1986 in San Jose. At the time, Watts was thinking football, deciding between UCLA and San Jose State. But since he preferred playing basketball he took the Utes up on their offer in the spring of '87.

He had to sit out the 1987-88 season because of the NCAA's Proposition 48 rule (test scores not high enough) and it wasn't an easy year. He had to work hard in school to get his grades up and wasn't allowed to be any part of the team. He couldn't work out with the team, couldn't travel with them or couldn't even get free tickets to the games.

But he waited it out patiently and it has paid off this year as he has progressed faster than most folks figured.

"Walter is a tremendous athlete and he's gaining more confidence every day," said Ute Coach Lynn Archibald. "He's understanding the game a lot more. You have to realize he didn't have organized practices for over a year."

One drawback to the lost year was that Watts got, shall we say, a little out of shape. He reported for the start of practice in October at a not-so-svelte 319 pounds. "That was the biggest I ever was," he says, a bit sheepishly.

He's dropped 30 pounds since then, but according to Walter, he has another 30 pounds to go.

"I want to get my weight down to 260," he says. "I've just got to get my weight down. It will make me a better basketball player."

Part of the weight problem is heredity. Watts' father looks just like an older, shorter version of Walter. "It runs in the family," says Walter. But he also loves to eat, especially chicken and various fried foods.

"I don't know what it is. I probably eat just twice a day," says Watts. He must forget about the Doritos and candy bars he sometimes sneaks before breakfast on the road.

Out on the floor, Watts appears, at first glance, like he must be slow and lacking in jumping ability due to his size. But his quickness gets him past startled opponents and he can easily dunk the ball from a flat-footed start. And he certainly isn't afraid to shoot the ball. Although Archibald has never told Watts not to shoot, he has indicated that he could do with a few less Watts shots, especially the ones beyond 15 feet. But his teammates give him a bad time about his propensity to shoot.

"They're always joking with me about it," says Watts. "But they're the ones who give me the ball."

Watts is probably the most popular player to play at the U. in years. He gets the loudest cheer in opening introductions and when he sits on the bench for long periods, a chant of "Wal-ter Wal-ter" is bound to come from the student section.

His popularity may have even helped earn him a spot on the all-tournament team at the recent Utah Classic. Although he played well in the two games with 30 points and 14 rebounds, some thought Madison, a senior, who had virtually the same stats as Watts, deserved the nod instead. But Watts got all the cheers and that may have influenced the voters.

On the road, Watts also gets noticed. At the Great Alaska Shootout, he got plenty of cheers from the non-partisan crowd. Now when he plays at the hostile arenas of the WAC he may not get the cheers, but he certainly gets the fans buzzing when he comes on the floor.

"His presence on the court is not only exciting to watch, but it's also intimidating to the opposing players," says Archibald.

**** It's rare for an athlete to have the possibility of playing one of three different professional sports. But that seems to be the case with Watts, who is all of 19 years old.

He's already had two years of professional baseball experience, playing in Elizabethton, Tenn., a rookie league team in the Minnesota Twins organization. His first year he played first base, but was switched to pitcher this past summer because of a 90 mph fastball. He had his control problems with more walks than innings pitched. But can you imagine what a batter would feel like having a 300-pound pitcher firing 90-mph fastballs at him from just 60 feet away - especially one with control problems?

Out of high school, Watts had offers from a few bigtime football programs but decided on basketball "because this is a fun game and because I won't get hurt as fast as I might in football," he says. With his size and athletic ability, Watts would seem a natural in the NFL as a lineman, although he was recruited out of Independence High School as a tight end.

Then there's basketball. Of course he's a long, long way from the NBA, but again, his size and athletic ability make him a possibility for the 1990s. After all, they say the wave of the future in the NBA are the wide-bodied athletes in the Charles Barkley-Bill Laimbeer-Karl Malone mold.

Watts certainly has the wide body already.

"He's got to have patience with himself and narrow his game a little bit," says Archibald."He'll do well because he's a good athlete and he's still young."