Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
When Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta started sophomore Amir Williams at center against Chicago State Dec. 29, it might have raised some eyebrows.
After all, it was the first time all season Matta had made a change to the starting lineup. But when the starters were introduced Wednesday night for OSU’s Big Ten opener against Nebraska, and Williams was still one of them, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Against the likes of Winthrop and UNC-Asheville, Matta favored the steady, yet generally unspectacular play of senior forward Evan Ravenel. But in losses to No. 1 Duke and No. 6 Kansas, Williams received more playing time than any other OSU big man. If the Buckeyes are to accomplish their goal of a Big Ten championship and a deep NCAA tournament run, they will need to beat teams with the size and talent of Kansas or Duke. And to do so, they will need Williams to play often, and play well.
“It’s just been great to have a center,” said junior point guard Aaron Craft of Williams’ emergence in the starting lineup. “We haven’t had one in a couple of years.”
Craft’s comment came off as a bit of a joke, likely a chance to poke fun at a teammate who’s in the limelight for the first time of his collegiate career. But it also cut to a hard truth; though Williams has been a member of the Buckeyes for two seasons, his inconsistent and sometimes soft play had left OSU without a center.
Coming out of Detroit Country Day School in Birmingham, Mich., Williams was ranked by ESPN as a four-star prospect and the fourth best center in the class of 2011. As a freshman, Williams showed that the high-ranking might have been based heavily on unrealized potential, as he displayed an extremely unpolished game in limited action.
This season, Williams has started to scratch the surface of his potential. He still makes mistakes-against Nebraska he whiffed on the opening tip, air-balled a shot in the post and allowed his man to drive for a couple of easy scores-but his numbers are up across the board. This is in part a product of receiving more playing time, but also likely an indication that he’s more comfortable on the court this year.
“He’s just been playing great,” Craft said. “I think he’s doing a great job coming in and understanding how he can affect the game, and not stepping out of that.”
Most importantly, Williams is thriving as a defensive anchor. Against Nebraska, the 6-foot-11 center blocked four shots, altered many more, and was a key factor in holding the Cornhuskers to just 30.4 percent shooting.
“I thought they did a good job with their interior defense,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles. “We were, what, 11-for-35 on 2s? That’s just ineffective basketball. We couldn’t get (our big men) going inside the paint, and that hurt us.”
Nebraska, though, is hardly one of the best teams in the Big Ten. In fact, they might be one of the worst. The conference’s most likely contenders-namely Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota-all feature players that can score in the post. OSU’s success against the league’s elite hinges upon Williams’ ability to do what he does best.
“(He needs to be) blocking shots, altering shots, (getting) offensive rebounds, put-backs,” Craft said. “It’s the little things that end up being big in big games, especially in the Big Ten.”
Williams said he’s up for the challenge.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Williams said. “Every team in the Big Ten has that one center that can score the ball or run the court. I have total confidence within myself, I can matchup with anybody in the Big Ten.”