Amir Williams knows it will be difficult for many to believe, because it was for him.
“Coach (Thad Matta) always tells me that as I go, the team goes,” the 6-foot-11 Ohio State junior said.
It sounded like just another ploy to motivate him.
The Buckeyes won 11 games in a row late last season and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament after Williams’ minutes were reduced to make more time for a smaller lineup.
They won their first 15 games this season, and Williams, as the starting center, had some nice-looking numbers against some inferior competition, but neither he nor anyone else saw him as a difference-maker in that run. But then the Buckeyes lost four in a row, and five of six, and in several of the games, their defense gave up a slew of points inside.
“Ever since then, I’ve put a little more effort into whatever I’m doing,” Williams said recently, “because we can’t have moments like those if we want to get to where we want to go. I just took it upon myself to help get my team going more.”
Ohio State has rebounded from its January slip to win three games in a row and yesterday re-entered the Associated Press top 25 at No. 22. The Buckeyes could make it four straight wins tonight against No. 15 Michigan at Value City Arena.
In two games against the Wolverines last season, Williams played 11 minutes in the first but a career-high 36 in the next, an overtime loss in which he had nine points (one off his season high) and four blocked shots in a high-tempo, back-and-forth game.
If Williams wasn’t ready then to acknowledge his value to his team, he is now.
“Coach always talks about how my energy level impacts the rest of our team,” he said, “and that’s very true, because every time I come out and I play well, it gets my teammates hyped and excited to play.”
Williams has been a model of inconsistency. He arrived on campus 21/2 years ago to huge expectations, a McDonald’s All-American and the heir to two-time All-America center Jared Sullinger.
“A lot of people judge Amir based on Jared Sullinger, Kosta Koufos, B.J. Mullens, Greg Oden, and want him to be that type of player. They’re not the same player,” said assistant coach Dave Dickerson, referring to four players who left Ohio State after one or two seasons and were NBA first-round draft choices.
Dickerson, who also coached big men as a Maryland assistant before he was head coach at Tulane for five years, said there are two types: those with “a high-level motor, who are wired differently,” and others who “it takes time to develop.” Dickerson likened Williams to a Maryland big man he helped develop, Tahj Holden.
“The last 10 games of his junior year and his senior year, he turned himself from being a role player into being a major asset for us going to two Final Fours and winning a national championship,” Dickerson said. “But it took him awhile to realize his potential.”
Williams is at that point in his career and just now realizing how much his presence on the court means to his team.
Advanced statistics bear it out. GroupStats published lineup efficiency ratings for Ohio State last week, and they show more of a variance in the Buckeyes’ efficiency depending on whether Williams is on the court than for any other player.
“We need Amir to play well,” Matta said.
What bothers some fans is the seeming absence of energy Williams displays when introduced with the other starters before games. They theorize it is the reason he lacks it when the game starts. Williams says otherwise.
“You can’t look at my face and say (whether I’m) ready to go,” he said.
Once the game begins, though, it is quickly apparent whether he is.
“I’ve just got to get myself mentally prepared for games,” Williams said, “and lately, I feel like I’ve been doing a better job of that. It’s a mental thing for me. I’ve just got to continue to find ways to get myself going before and during the game.”