For a men’s basketball team that has lacked consistent performance, freshman Yuta Watanabe has been a source of certainty through his first eight contests.
Twenty seconds into the team’s game against Charlotte in the BB&T Classic on Sunday, senior forward John Kopriva was whistled for a foul. Another 20 seconds later, in the same 49ers opening possession, Kopriva was tagged again, sending him to the bench in disbelief.
Not even a minute had passed in the matchup, fans were still filing into their seats, and head coach Mike Lonergan found himself at a huge disadvantage. He was forced to sit Kopriva for the next 13 minutes of the first half, potentially compromising an already shallow Colonials frontcourt.
In addition to an immediate depth setback, the GW frontcourt had a 6-foot-11, 270-pound problem on its hands in the form of Charlotte center Mike Thorne Jr., who was averaging nearly a double-double at 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds entering Sunday’s game. GW also had to contend with forward Willie Clayton, who Lonergan pegged as a “monster rebounder” and was coming off a season-high 17-point performance against Davidson on Wednesday.
“[John] getting two fouls in the first 30 seconds was really scary against that front line,” Lonergan said after the game.
The freshman, who played 15 minutes of the opening half, significantly contributed to limiting the Charlotte frontcourt, using his lanky 6-foot-8 frame to hold the 49ers in the paint and trap them on the baseline. By the end of the half, Thorne and Clayton combined for just six points and seven boards – a stat that, without Watanabe’s support, could have been much worse.
Like he’s done for much of this early season, Watanabe provided high-energy hustle plays for GW. And while he isn’t particularly vocal on the floor, his emotional reactions on big plays fire up his teammates.
With GW down 10-12 and 12:29 to play in the first half, Watanabe rejected Charlotte guard Torin Dorn at the rim, erasing what seemed like an easy fast break dunk. Then as 49er guard Terrence Williams secured a rebound and attempted the put-back lay-in, Watanabe was there to block a second shot. Charlotte would eventually turn the ball over in the same possession.
“He doesn’t have a lot of power, but when he chased the guy down and blocked his shot – I mean, I love watching him play,” Lonergan said.
Averaging 20.6 minutes per game, Watanabe has commanded the sixth man spot on the roster and has helped ease depth worries for GW. He’s consistently demonstrated the ability to get to the rim (although he still needs some work finishing at the rim), get out on the break and score inside – and, consequently, has emerged as a deep threat for a team in need of 3-point shooting.
On Sunday, Lonergan called Watanabe the best shooter on the team. The freshman is indeed leading the team in a handful of statistical categories, including being tied for first in 3-point field goals made, and he has the highest 3-point percentage on the team among players who have taken at least 14 attempts.
Watanabe’s composure for a freshman is rare, and if it weren’t for his skinny stature, it’d be easy to forget he’s still just in his first year at the collegiate level. He is serving as a benefit to Lonergan on the floor as a Colonial who can contribute off the bench and play consistently without getting visibly flustered when in a pinch.
On Sunday, Lonergan referenced GW’s earlier matchup against Virginia, where Watanabe finished second on the team in scoring with 10 points (3-9 shooting) and a team-high five rebounds. Watanabe played a season-high 28 minutes in the 59-42 loss to the Cavaliers.
“In the Virginia game, in the second half, I think he was probably the only guy who kept his composure,” Lonergan said. “Yuta just plays like he is older and more mature.”
Yuta’s size has made him a “tweener” in terms of how Lonergan has used him in the early season, but Lonergan has repeatedly said that Watanabe will need to get stronger: The fourth-year GW head coach wants to use him primarily as a power forward.
“He’s definitely going to be a fan favorite for us, and his best days are ahead of him,” Lonergan said.
Sean Hurd, a junior majoring in exercise science, is The Hatchet’s sports columnist.