Former NBC Sports college hoop blogger Troy Machir—now with The Sporting News—and I exchanged Twitter one-liners last month regarding Ohio State center Amir Williams. Troy was discussing players who've seemingly been in college a long time.
At the time we had that conversation, Williams was already putting the lie to my joke with a pair of double-figure scoring games, one a 14-point, 10-rebound effort against Ohio.
Since then, Williams has brought down a career-high 16 rebounds in a win over Wyoming and scored in double figures three more times. That gives him six games of 10-plus points on the season, up from last season's career high of...
The point is that Williams, a former McDonald's All-American, has been practically invisible during his first two seasons in Columbus. As a junior, however, he looks like he's put it all together, so much so that he's become the single most important Buckeye in the entire tree.
Yes, even more important than Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross or YouTube magnet Sam "Slam" Thompson.
Better Shape—Physically and Mentally
It all started with the endless miles over the summer. Williams was forced into better shape, and according to OSU's campus newspaper The Lantern, he dragged the rest of the team with him kicking and screaming.
All the players had to keep running miles until Williams could finish in six minutes or less. It took until September, but the results appear worth the struggle.
A 250-pound man who could only play 20 minutes or more six times all of last season has already done so seven times over Ohio State's first 10 games. Good thing, too, as the only other interior option on the Buckeye roster is 6'8" Trey McDonald, who's been most productive in small doses.
Williams ranks in the Big Ten's top three in field-goal percentage, offensive rebounds and blocks. The latter two have always been strengths of Williams' game, but he's been unable to play enough minutes to make a major difference.
What minutes he did play were underwhelming at best and indifferent at worst. Not so this year.
“I’m playing more minutes than I was last year. I don’t feel like I’m tired like I was last year,” Williams said to The Lantern. “Sometimes (Matta) would just take me out just because, but I feel like I’m in a lot more shape than I was this year than last year and I just gotta continue to build on that.”
Having the dominant shot-blocker on the court more often allows Craft and Shannon Scott to do what they do best—torture and rob ball-handlers. The guards know that if one gets by, there's protection in the paint.
Between the improved focus and conditioning, Williams is poised to assert himself as one of the Big Ten's most dominant post players—if he can only stay involved in the offense.
Where's the Ball?
On paper, OSU's win over Wyoming looks like Williams' most dominant game. He pounded the Cowboys for 12 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. Those caroms and the resultant putbacks masked the fact that he was largely invisible in the offense. Williams got the ball on the low block only three times all night, according to Rush the Court.
On the season, Williams has taken the shot on only 17 percent of his available possessions, per Ken Pomeroy (subscription required). Only Craft and McDonald have put the ball up less often.
The Buckeyes began the season shooting only 41 percent from the floor through their first five games. Over the next five, the team has caught fire, largely thanks to Ross awakening from his early-season stupor.
For his part, Williams has taken only 30 shots in those most recent five games, but he's converted 22 of them, a 73 percent success rate. Now, imagine if the Buckeye perimeter brigade would make a concerted effort to let the big dog eat.
There will be times during the Big Ten schedule that OSU's jumpers won't be falling. There will also be times that Craft and Scott will struggle to break a defense down and create for others. Those will be the times when Williams' teammates will need to trust him with the ball in post position and allow him to use his lengthy 6'11" frame for its intended purpose.
Forcing defenses to help down on Williams will open up better looks for the jump-shooters, et voila. Slump busted.
All-Big Ten Candidate?
All right, all right, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. After all, the Big Ten is home to a host of talented bigs, including preseason All-America candidates Adreian Payne and Mitch McGary.
If we're being honest, though, neither of those hyped Michiganders are outproducing Williams at this early point of the campaign. Legitimate cases can be made for Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, Iowa's Aaron White and perhaps Indiana freshman Noah Vonleh as the conference's most effective big men so far, but Williams is right there in the mix.
He must keep it up, because there is no veteran lunch-pail guy with decent skills for Matta to fall back on like he could with Evan Ravenel last season. McDonald is a hard worker, but no one wants to see him on the floor for 25-30 minutes per game.
Williams credits Coach Matta for the improvements he's made so far, or at least he did during the now-viral interview, seen at right, in which he almost drew an FCC fine for the Big Ten Network. (Warning: video title may be considered offensive.)
But, as any coach will tell you, a player has to totally buy in before he can make the kinds of leaps that Williams has made this season.
Williams' ability to continue this run of good form will be the difference between Ohio State puttering out of the NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16 and potentially reaching Matta's third Final Four.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Now playing: Poll Dancing, TBI's official top 25 rankings. See where Ohio State falls among the nation's elite.