It was less than 10 minutes of playing time – a small sample size, no doubt – but it was enough for Amir Williams to make a statement influential enough to stay fresh in the minds of Ohio State basketball followers throughout the entire offseason.
Though asked to perform only in small spurts during his freshman season, Williams was unexpectedly told to take off his warm-ups in the first half of Ohio State’s 77-70 win over Syracuse in last year’s Elite Eight game of the NCAA Tournament.
“I was more excited than anything,” Williams told BSB. “I was ready.”
Thad Matta probably would disagree with the assertion that Williams was completely ready to be on the stage on which he was thrust, but with Jared Sullinger and Evan Ravenel both saddled with foul trouble, the head coach had no choice but to turn to the freshman.
With Sullinger restricted on the bench after picking up his second foul with 13:42 remaining in the first half, Syracuse looked poised to go on a run to gain some much- needed breathing room headed into halftime.
All the Orange had to do was take advantage of Ohio State’s freshman center, who has since admitted he didn’t even expect to see the floor that day. But Syracuse couldn’t handle Williams.
It was only a nine-minute appearance, but Williams scored three points, grabbed four rebounds and posted two blocks to help the Buckeyes preserve a tie at 29 at halftime. Sullinger returned to the floor in the second half, helping OSU punch its second ticket to the Final Four under Matta.
“That was a huge moment for me,” the 6- 11, 250-pound Williams said. “All I wanted to do was help my team win, and I was able to do that. It set me up with a lot of confidence heading into this year.”
What it did was help the program’s followers make an assumption that Williams would be ready to help the Buckeyes seamlessly move on from the Sullinger era, even if the big man’s impressive performance occurred in a very small sample size.
Matta is quick to point out that it isn’t smart to jump to such conclusions.
“You have to be careful about taking people’s opinions and casting them on,” the OSU head coach said. “I think that’s kind of what’s wrong with society today. Joe Blow has an opinion and everyone thinks that’s the gospel.”
It’s not that Matta doesn’t think Williams has made great strides since March or that Ohio State isn’t relying on productive minutes out of the sophomore if it wants to make another deep run in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The head coach has simply gotten a much more intimate look at the player he hopes to mold into the Buckeyes’ next prolific big man. And what he sees is a player with a lot of potential, but one with a long way to go before he is consistently the player he was against Syracuse.
“I got really excited (after a recent practice) because I just loved the effort he was giving,” Matta said of Williams. “But like all players his age, he has a long way to go.”
Williams himself has spoken about the necessity of gaining more strength, and in instances this season the big man has been outmuscled for rebounds and simply out of position for box-out attempts.
Perhaps that’s the reason he’s still behind Ravenel on the depth chart despite being widely expected to be a constant piece of Ohio State’s starting lineup this season.
Matta sees that Williams possesses the pieces to be the player most expected him to be already, but the signs of that hidden ability have exposed themselves in a different way than playing productive minutes in the postseason.
“The biggest thing I have seen from Amir Williams was in the Albany game where he fed Deshaun Thomas and Deshaun got fouled off a layup,” Matta said. “Amir took his fist and pumped it in the air. At that point, as crazy as it sounds, I said, ‘Amir Williams is going to be a heck of a basketball player,’ because he showed some emotion.”
The key for Williams now is putting everything together, whether that’s gaining strength, better understanding his positioning on the floor or simply playing with more confidence.
Once Williams does all those things, Matta expects big things. Until then, onlookers must wait for the consistent version of the Williams who offered glimpses of what could be on last year’s biggest stage.
“Remember when Evan Turner in his sophomore year went to Tennessee and got 25 points, the next game he had 12 rebounds and the next game he had eight assists?” Matta said. “I told him, ‘Look, if you ever put it all together, you’re going to be a great player,’ and the next year he was the national player of the year.
“I think that’s the thing you see as a coach – the evolution and then it finally clicks in their minds.”
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