A senior during the 2004-05 campaign and also a member of Gottfried’s staff three years ago, Levi Watkins will make the 150-mile trek from Buffalo to Syracuse to watch his alma mater and former boss take on Louisville with NC State trying to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1986.
Watkins is now in his second season as an assistant coach on Bobby Hurley’s staff at Buffalo after spending a combined 12 years as a player and coach at NC State.
His roommate during his freshmen year was Jordan Collins. Having played four seasons with Watkins while also following his coaching career since graduation, Collins is not surprised his classmate is showing progress in his latest endeavor.
“[The] first thing that comes mind about Levi is he’s an extremely focused and hard-working person,” Collins said. “He locks in on something and gets it done.”
In his four seasons as a player, NC State was one of only 21 schools to reach the NCAA Tournament in all four years. After three tries, the Pack finally advanced to the Sweet Sixteen when Collins was a senior.
“We had some adversity that year,” Watkins remembered. “We started off 3-7 in the ACC that year. Obviously, we had already went to three NCAA Tournaments in a row and for our senior year we obviously didn’t want to go out like that. We had to battle some adversity and then just started playing well at the right time. It is just a coincidence that this team is doing the same thing.”
In Watkins’ senior season, the Wolfpack had a nice mix of upperclassmen and younger players. Former ACC Player of the Year Julius Hodge and Collins were his classmates and Cam Bennerman along with Ilian Evtimov were juniors. Freshmen contributors on that squad included Andrew Brackman, Cedric Simmons and Gavin Grant. Sophomore Engin Atsür started at point guard for Herb Sendek’s team.
The lessons learned from that team and the success it achieved have remained with Watkins as he continued in basketball. “Coach Sendek was obviously very competitive and a very good coach but we also pushed ourselves,” Watkins said. “We also challenged each other. That is something that I talk about a lot, even with my Buffalo team now. All the better teams, all that I have coached or been a part of, had guys that just competed at the highest level. Just that willingness to not accept losing--it really hurt to lose--is what helped us my four years there.”
A Parade All-American and the USA Today Maryland State Player of the Year in high school, Watkins’ playing career at NC State was marred by injuries. After he graduated following the 2004-05 season, Watkins elected to begin his journey in coaching. He didn’t have to travel at all to get his start.
“I have learned a lot from [Sendek] and he gave me my first opportunity,” Watkins said of his college coach. “I worked for him my first year out of school. I had some opportunities to go overseas. I had battled a lot of injuries and it was a tough decision for me to continue to play or get right into coaching. I had an opportunity and Coach Sendek gave me that opportunity. I will always thank him and always give him credit for my development as a coach.
“From the best player all the way down to last walk-on, he held everybody accountable--managers, coaches, everybody. That environment that he created, his passion to not want to lose just trickled down from him. We just had a toughness about us and you have got to have that in the ACC. There is too many good players and coaches. You just have to have that. He really stressed that everyday.”
Collins expected Watkins to succeed mentoring young players after he made the transition following his playing career. Four years together and following NC State afterwards have given him a unique perspective of his former roommate.
“I am not surprised at all about his [progression in] the coaching ranks because I know how hard of a worker he is and his basketball knowledge,” Collins said. “I think he has a great ability to relate to kids these days.”
His family hails from Raleigh, so Watkins spends some of free time back in North Carolina during holiday breaks and keeps tabs on the Wolfpack as best as his job will allow.
“Obviously at this point in my life my priority is my current team and helping them get ready and prepare, but any chance I get to watch I always try to watch--especially now that the technology is so easy and even if I don’t catch it live I go back and watch,” Watkins said. “My wife was born in Raleigh and both of my kids were born in Raleigh so we were there for Christmas. We were able to see them. I think they were down 18 to Louisiana Tech and ended up beating them. I was actually at that game.”
As the conduit between the Wolfpack team 10 seasons ago and the current squad, Watkins maintains some familiarity with the Wolfpack despite moving on to Buffalo. He is thrilled with the team’s success and remains a proud NC State alum.
“Some of those guys I know, Ralston was sitting out my last year there,” Watkins said. “He is one of my favorites. I will always wish him the best. I have heard so many good things about Trevor Lacey. Cat Barber, Kyle [Washington] and BeeJay [Anya]. all of those guys were on visits my last year. Just seeing them improve, seeing them get better and get after it--it is just fun to see that they are able to make NC State relevant, win the big games that they are winning, and to be out there representing the University well is just fun for me and all the former players to watch.”
Watkins can be expected to travel as his coaching career progresses. In the ultimate bit of irony, Hurley has been linked to the current opening at Arizona State that was created when Sendek was dismissed after nine seasons in Tempe. Watkins could be on the move again sooner rather than later.
However, wherever his travels may take him, NC State will always hold a special place in his heart. Watkins is happy with what he has seen since Gottfried took over.
“I spent 12 years there, not just my four years of playing, twelve years of giving my all to my alma mater and to a special program,” Watkins said. “It is a special place. It will always have a special place in my heart. I just think that college basketball for any young man, it is a great place to be. Just the passion that the fans have and how much people care about their program, how they really follow it day-in and day-out, I just think it is a special place and I am happy for Coach Gottfried and the rest of the staff.”
“They are great. They work hard to keep having talent in the program and to get the most out of the program. Us, as former players, are definitely happy that the program is in Coach Gottfried’s hands. He is continuing to get those guys better and better. It is fun to watch.”
And Watkins will watch NC State on Friday--and perhaps, beyond--in person.
“I will be at the game this weekend,” Watkins said. “Syracuse is only two hours from Buffalo. We [former players] all want to be able to talk trash about our program. Obviously it was good during the time I was playing, but I want these guys to do what we did and even more.”