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Historic day for Big 4 is possible

No matter how long they keeping bouncing the ball there never will be another year like 1970 in the annals of Western New York college basketball.

St. Bonaventure went to the Final Four (and came within a Bob Lanier knee injury of winning it all). Lanier and Niagara's Calvin Murphy were All-Americans. And to top it all off, Lanier went first overall in the NBA draft, Murphy 18th, the first pick in the second round.

Those days are gone. A reworked college basketball landscape makes it improbable a Big 4 team again will advance to the Final Four. Two first-team All-Americans in the same season? Won't happen.

Although the college game has tilted in favor of the major conference elite, it's looking like the Big 4 is in for the kind of landmark day thought to have vanished with those ancient yesterdays. Bona's Andrew Nicholson, labeled a future NBA draft pick from the time he stepped on campus, projects as a first-round selection next month. But it doesn't stop there. UB forward Mitchell Watt, the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year, has attracted keen attention since season's end and been slotted in a number of credible mock drafts.

"It's been pretty interesting," Watt said by phone from his home in Arizona last week. "Portsmouth did a lot of things for me. Really just getting my name out there as a player has been the biggest challenge for me right now coming from a school like Buffalo that doesn't get a whole lot of national attention."

Watt averaged 12.7 points in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational, a proving ground for players on the NBA Draft bubble. He showed his offensive abilities away from the basket, hitting a pair of threes. He was a force in the paint, blocking a tournament-high 13 shots and averaging nine rebounds in the three-game showcase. It's impressive considering Watt measured at 6-foot-8, 220 pounds. UB listed him as 6-10.

NBA teams are flying him in for personal workouts. He'll be with the Brooklyn (nee New Jersey) Nets this coming weekend. Then it's on to Golden State, to Oklahoma City, to Miami and Portland.

"If I show well, a couple of these teams like the Thunder and the Heat only have a late first-round pick and no second-round pick," Watt said. "Depending how I show in my workouts, that's a real possibility. Or I could go middle to late second-round. I don't know. The NBA can be unpredictable at times with their draft choices. Really I'm just kind of flying by the seat of my pants right now, training here and making sure I'm the most prepared that I can be going into my tryouts."

It's already been an amazing journey. In August of 2009 Watt was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disorder where the body's immune system attacks the nerves. While most of those afflicted recover, there was a period of uncertainty. The effects can linger. Almost three years later, Watt finds himself in the mix at the NBA Draft.

"It's not something that I was necessarily expecting but that's just how things played out," he said. "I've been trying to make the most of my opportunities and just been enjoying the ride so far, putting in hard work letting that speak for itself."

Watt and Nicholson last went up against each other on Dec. 3, 2011 at UB. If both are drafted it would be the first time since 1985 that two Big 4 players who become NBA draft picks met up in a game. (Mike Smrek of Canisius went in the second round to Portland in 1985 and Joe Arlauckas of Niagara to Sacramento in the fourth round in '87).

And if both Nicholson and Watt go in the first round? It's probably as close as we'll come to 1970 for a long, long time.