Rebuilding Strong

A continued string of good players, some patience, much persistence, and a lot of perspective have gone into the first three years of Rodney Watson’s tenure as the men’s basketball coach at the University of Southern Indiana.

USI was reeling from an NCAA investigation that stemmed from what the school called “irregularities in its athletics program” that led to former men’s basketball coach Rick Herdes’ resignation in 2009. The NCAA found that a former USI assistant coach had arranged for improper academic credit for a player, provided improper benefits for another, then gave misleading testimony during the investigation.

That was a far fall for a program that reached the NCAA Division II national championship game in 2004 and won the title in 1995.

USI hired Rodney Watson, a long-time assistant coach at Southern Illinois University, to lead the program past NCAA probation and a ban on postseason play that the Great Lakes Valley Conference put on USI for the 2009-2010 season.

It was during that season that the basketball program and the USI community as a whole suffered a major loss with the death of player Jeron Lewis, a senior from Fort Wayne, Ind. The USI center, who was very well liked among the team and on campus, collapsed on Jan. 14, 2010, at the Sportscenter in Owensboro, Ky., during the second half of the game against rival Kentucky Wesleyan College. Lewis died later that evening of sudden cardiac arrest.

“The big thing with the first year, we had so many distractions, and then we had a catastrophe,” Watson says. “Those distractions were very minor in retrospect. They (the GLVC) voted to keep us out of postseason. It set us back; then we regrouped. We got off to a great start that year. We took the mindset that we were going to win 27 games. Then, we realized on Jan. 14, at 9:52 (the time of Lewis’ collapse) that night, what a catastrophe and tragedy was. It gave us a strong mindset, and a real baseline of what is important in life.”

The rest of that season was played in Lewis’ honor, and the Screaming Eagles finished 24-3 and were ranked in the top 10 at the end of the regular season. Lewis’ memory still is fresh with USI fans. At a regular-season game against KWC at the Physical Activities Center on USI’s campus, several were seen wearing shirts displaying his picture or jersey number.

“It was a huge bonding point for us,” Watson says. “Life is short, and for those of us here, that gave us a sense of reality. It was an honor and a blessing to have Jeron Lewis in this program. While this is very temporary, that will bond us forever.”

Watson did well to lead the program through that ordeal, and coached All-American Jamar Smith, from Peoria, Ill., as he won the Basketball Times NCAA Division II Player of the Year. His team ended the season as runner-up in the GLVC Tournament, with an appearance in the NCAA Division II Tournament and a 24-6 finish. 

“What impressed me about last year was how everyone changed their roles. Guys went from being second line players to the front line; they moved up on every opponent’s scouting report,” Watson says. This year’s team, ranked in the Division II top 10, features Brandon Hogg, a senior from Edwardsville, Ill., and Lawrence Thomas, a sophomore from Springfield, Ill., transitioning from second line to front line players. “They’ve stayed together, played for the right reasons,” Watson says. “We all need to have goals, and they have only one common goal: to win the game first.”

Entering this season, Watson’s three teams have put together an impressive 48-9 worksheet. It hasn’t taken him long to understand how important the basketball program is at USI, and also where it fits in with both the academics at the school and within a very successful overall athletic department. He is quick to give credit to assistant coach Derrick Tilmon and his understanding of recruiting and scheduling.

“What really helps the talent-building all around is when you have a strong athletic department; you see the basketball team and the track and cross country teams all working hard, running during the summer and winter. When you see how hard everyone is working, it holds everyone accountable. It’s part of the entire mission of the university.”

Watson has had considerable support from the athletics administration, headed by athletic director Jon Mark Hall.

“Our probation lasts until February. We’ve been on it every minute since I’ve been here,” Watson says. “We’re going to do it the right way. When you go sit through an infractions meeting with the NCAA, you want it to be the last one you go through in your life.”

“What is so good about this place is the amount of resources we have. The Varsity Club here is terrific, and so are the administrators. We, men’s basketball, are one link in the chain. As long as we stay with our mission, we will be well received,” Watson says. “When you see the number of banners hanging in rafters, we have a lot to uphold here.”

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