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Bonner alum Tyreese Watson finally sees Division I dream pay off

01/05/2023, 11:30am EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

All throughout his time at Bonner-Prendergast and beyond, Tyreese Watson had a singular goal: play Division I basketball. It’s a dream he chased from one end of the country to the other, through starts and stops, through a pandemic, from prep schools to junior college. 

“The journey never stopped,” he said by phone Tuesday afternoon. “Whether they’re telling me it is [over] or it’s not, I determine if it stops or not. If someone’s telling me the door’s still open, I’m going to take it, I’m going through it — and that was my whole mindset through it.”

Tyreese Watson (above) has committed to D-I Louisiana-Monroe after two years at Cochise (Ariz.) College. (Photo courtesy Cochise Athletics)

Now a sophomore at Cochise College (Ariz.), a Division I junior college, Watson made his multi-year chase pay off last week, as the Philadelphia native accepted a scholarship offer to Louisiana-Monroe. 

It’s the result of a basketball trip that took him from the Mid-Atlantic to New England, the Deep South, and finally out West, where he has settled in and proven himself worthy of that elusive D-I scholarship.

Watson spent three seasons playing at a high level in the Bonner backcourt, averaging 17.6 ppg and earning first team all-PCL honors as a senior, when Bonner went 20-5 (11-3 PCL) despite the graduation of Isaiah Wong (Miami), Tariq Ingraham (Rider) and others the year before. He had a couple D-II offers, but that wasn’t the goal. There were still options left, routes to exhaust, before he considered any alternatives; it was a risky path, one that nearly turned disastrous.

The COVID pandemic certainly presented an issue, the whole summer of 2020 one giant question mark. He made the decision to attend Springfield (Mass.) Commonwealth Academy, a well-established boarding school with a prep hoops program in the prestigious New England Prep School Athletic Council (NEPSAC). But Commonwealth’s season never happened; Watson spent a month up there before the school shut the team down due to the pandemic. 

Instead, he ended up at the new First State Prep (Del.), which “wasn’t really a school, it was just a lot of basketball,” able to fit in a number of weekend-long tournaments in the few weeks remaining in the season after he joined the team.

“It was a pretty rocky year,” he added.

With the NCAA granting all players an additional year of eligibility following the 2020-21 season, and having barely played during that lost prep year, Watson didn’t have many options at the conclusion of First State’s slate. He briefly considered a year with The Skill Factory (Ga.), but a week in Atlanta, and the realization he’d have to pay for a hotel room or AirBnB all year, was a quick wake-up call that it wasn’t the right spot.

Watson (above, with ball) was a First Team All-Catholic League selection as a senior at Bonner-Prendergast. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Luckily for Watson, he got some help at just the right time. West Chester assistant Ben Kay put Watson in touch with longtime Cochise head coach Jerry Carrillo, Kay and Carrillo having met in 2017 at the annual coaches’ convention at the Final Four, which was in Phoenix that year.

Carrillo, who’s had a number of Philadelphia-area products down to Cochise — located in Douglas (Az.), a two-hour drive outside Tucson, near the state’s southeastern corner — was intrigued by the 6-foot-4 guard with a strong hoops background, whose brother (Maurice Watson Jr.) had played at Boston U and Creighton, even if Watson wasn’t quite Division I ready just yet.

“I flat-out told him, if he’s as good as (advertised), he’s going to play on a national stage, and he’s going to be re-recruited,” said Carrillo, who’s won more than 600 games in nearly three decades at Cochise, sending dozens of players off to Division I programs after completing their two years at the JUCO level.

Watson didn’t have any other options.

“I still had faith, I still had faith,” he said. “They told me about this JUCO that I could still go D-I [from], so I took it.”

Watson had a quality freshman season, averaging 13.6 ppg as Cochise went 29-4, finishing one game shy of qualifying for the JUCO national championships in Kansas. No longer playing point guard — Carrillo moved Watson off the ball and onto the wing, taking advantage of his scoring abilities without needing to break the defense down, just work off screens and get buckets.

“We put him at the point early in the fall but we felt for his success and our success, playing him on the wing allows him to get his buckets when needed, allows him to create when needed,” Carrillo said. “We allow him to go off script and create for his teammates, he’s done a great job of that.”

Watson entered this fall one of just three sophomores on the team, knowing it was his turn to shine, that college coaches would be in the gym all fall for his classmates, 6-11 Oscar Cluff (Sunshine Coast, Aus.) and 6-8 Stephen Byard (Atlantic City, N.J.), and made sure that they wouldn’t be able to help but notice him, as well.

“To Tyreese’s credit, he came in and had a great fall preseason,” Carrillo said. “His work ethic was great, had a lot of Division I coaches roll through recruiting our bigs, and as you know coaches talk, so the word was out that Tyreese was having a great fall.”

Watson has moved from the '1' to the '2' in his college years. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

The day the offer he’d long waited for finally came through was an emotional one indeed for Watson. It was Sunday, November 20, the same day the Philadelphia basketball community was mourning the sudden loss of Gene Lett, a beloved mentor and trainer to many young ballplayers in the area, who had collapsed after a pickup game that morning.

Watson scored what was then a college career-best 27 points in a win over New Mexico Junior College hitting four 3-pointers as he hit the 20-point mark for the third game in a row, all played in a three-day span in Odessa, Texas.

“After that game I was in the locker room breaking down crying,” he said, “and my team was there for me and all that, just because of (Gene), the way the day was going, and the team felt my pain.”

When Watson had gotten his emotions out, he was told he had a visitor: ULM assistant coach Ronnie Dean was waiting outside, having watched Watson the prior few days.

“He told me the [scholarship] offer’s there, that he wants me to come in,” Watson said. “And then I knew he was serious because the next day and the next day he kept calling me, kept calling me.”

Watson took some time to get to know Dean and Warhawks head coach Keith Richard, to watch a few ULM games. But he wasn’t going to let his only offer go to waste, not after all the time he’d spent in pursuit of it. 

“[After] my process, going from school to school, I’m tired of chasing other schools,” he said. “The whole point, the whole goal, was to go D-I, and this school was riding my wave.”

Watson's commitment came right around the holidays, the announcement made on social media on Dec. 30, Watson joining Cluff (Washington State) and Byard (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) as a committed Division I player. 

He’ll join a program currently 6-9 (2-0 Sun Belt) in its 13th year under Richard, one which plays a deep rotation and spreads the shots around. But, as Carrillo knows all too well, Watson can’t rest on his laurels as a successful high-level JUCO player, averaging 17.9 ppg and 3.2 rpg as a sophomore; there’s still another jump that will have to come next year if he’s going to have the same role with ULM.

Right now, all he’s guaranteed is a roster spot and nothing more. But that’s enough for Watson, at least to start. After three years of criss-crossing the country, of wondering whether his decision to pursue that Division I scholarship was worth it, it all paid off.

“I took my opportunity,” he said. “I tried to go with my heart, and that’s pretty much it.”

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