FRED WATSON appreciates what he has at Benedict College, even though the program cannot match the facilities, budget and resources of many NCAA Division II men’s basketball programs the Tigers compete against.
There is one area of Benedict’s program that Watson believes can match any other.
“Winning,” Watson says, rather matter-of-factly. “We just try to sell winning. We can go up against them with winning.”
Watson has the numbers to back his claim. During his 11-season run at Benedict, Watson’s teams have averaged 21 wins. They have captured four SIAC regular-season championships and four league tournament titles.
On Saturday, in the South Regional in Lakeland, Fla., Benedict will make its seventh NCAA Division II tournament appearance in the past eight seasons. The sixth-seeded Tigers take on third-seeded Eckerd (Fla.) College at noon.
Because of this team’s versatility, Watson believes Benedict has the ability to win the regional, advance to the tournament’s Elite Eight and challenge for the national championship.
Benedict fields its best defensive team under Watson, allowing opponents 61 points per game on 39 percent shooting. The Tigers feature a fringe NBA prospect in 6-foot-10, 290-pound senior center Marcus Goode and a point guard who originally signed with Providence in 5-11 senior Xavier Collier.
Senior forward Tydran Beaty of Irmo High perhaps best represents what kind of player and team Watson coaches. Beaty, according to Watson, could average 20 points per game on most teams. Beaty was on his way to that kind of scoring output through six games, when he averaged 15.5 points.
Then Goode joined the team in December, the offense changed and Beaty was willing to sacrifice his scoring. Beaty’s average has been 11.3 since, and Watson says Benedict is a better team because of it.
“The difference with this team is we can play any way,” Watson says. “We can play any style. We can play fast. We can play slow. We can play half-court because we have Marcus Goode on the inside. We can get up and down because we have Xavier Collier on the perimeter.
“I’ve got a lot of athletes. I’ve got a lot of length. I can play any style.”
Year-in and year-out, Watson assembles an interesting mix of players because of his unusual method of recruiting. He filters in three or four freshmen every year, and holds out three or four spots every year for “come down” players, those whose travels first take them to Division I schools.
On his current 14-man roster, Watson counts seven who transferred to Benedict.
Goode first went to Marshall, Collier to Providence, Lamar Adkins to Norfolk State, Alex Brailsford to USC Upstate, Reginald Martin to Alabama A&M, Cassius Bell to Florida A&M and Rickie Jackson to Aiken Tech.
Goode’s tale is typical of how it works for Watson. Goode was a standout at Mid-Carolina High who had visions of playing Division I basketball. Watson knew during the recruiting process that he had no chance of landing Goode. It did not matter.
He continued to court the center.
“He wouldn’t even talk to me,” Watson says of Goode. “But when he decided to leave Marshall, I was one of the first people he called. I was on him so hard. ... When they come back to Division II, they remember me.”
They also remember what Watson promised them in recruiting.
“You are going to get a chance to play in the region (tournament), play in the postseason, win championships here,” Watson tells recruits. “I don’t recruit kids if they don’t want to win.”
He says the roots to winning are in the classroom. His thinking is that the player who works for himself in the classroom will work for his coach and teammates on the basketball court.
It was a major selling point when Watson pitched himself for the head coaching job more than a decade ago at age 25, just removed from playing at Benedict and earning a master’s degree from American Public University. He found a familiar face on the receiving end of the pitch, his former coach at Benedict, Willie Washington, the athletics director.
Washington hired Watson despite his former player having not one day of coaching experience, unless you count the parks and recreation leagues in his hometown of Georgetown.
“They took a chance, so that’s why I want to repay them,” Watson says. “I just put my head down and did what I knew. I knew basketball. I knew players. I knew how to win.”
Now Watson knows how to sell winning.
Benedict vs. Eckerd
What: Division II Men’s Tournament
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Lakeland, Fla.
Fred Watson has compiled a 229-92 record in 11 seasons as Benedict’s head men’s basketball coach. His teams won SIAC regular-season championships in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011, and captured SIAC tournament titles in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2013. A year-by-year look: