When you come to Ohio State, the pressure is on to succeed. When you come to Ohio State as a 6-foot-11-inch McDonald’s All-American center, living up to expectations is nearly impossible.
Career averages of 4.1 points per game and 3.9 rebounds per game — with his career highs this season at 8.9 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game — haven’t been what the OSU faithful were hoping for from junior center Amir Williams.
But despite all this, Williams just might hold OSU’s season in his hands.
Before OSU’s matchup against Illinois Jan. 23, coach Thad Matta said Williams’ success is something the team needs.
“We need Amir to play well. We need Amir to play consistently on both ends. We gotta get him back to tracking the ball, we gotta get him back to blocking shots more activity around the rim in terms of challenging shots … When he’s played well, we’ve played well. I know that,” Matta said.
In games where Williams has played 25 minutes or more, the Buckeyes are 10-1, with a missed layup by junior guard Shannon Scott against Michigan State the only thing keeping OSU from perfection in those 11 contests.
As the then-No. 17-ranked Buckeyes (16-4, 3-4) snapped their four-game losing streak by taking down Illinois, 62-55, Williams played 31 minutes — third most on the team — and added seven points and nine rebounds.
OSU was outrebounded in each of the final three games of the losing streak, during which Williams never played for more than 22 minutes.
Although the Illini grabbed more rebounds against the Buckeyes as well, the gap was closed to just one — 32-31 — because of the junior’s time on the court.
“Amir had ‘the look’ tonight. He was active. He was energetic. He was tracking the ball, blocking shots. I thought he did just a really, really good job. He was rebounding the ball, he got a couple out of his area,” Matta said after the Illinois game. “Those guys had a pretty good blow with what Illinois was attempting to do. His ball screen defense was really, really good. And finally we had support where we needed it and he started trusting guys that they were going to be there and I liked it.”
Although the Detroit native has started every game this season, his 31 minutes against the Illini were the most since he played 35 during the Buckeyes’ 72-68 loss against Michigan State. That was also the last game where OSU outrebounded its opponents.
Williams so far this season has an average plus/minus rating of +11.1 per game. Plus/minus is the metric that tracks how much a team outscores its opponents by when a player is on the court: the higher the number, the better. Junior forward Sam Thompson, whom many of the Buckeye faithful have been calling to start in place of Williams, has a season average of just +6.6.
Thompson commented before OSU’s loss against Minnesota Jan. 16 that Williams’ size and rebounding ability were big against the Spartans earlier in the season.
“We tried to go to the ‘small ball’ lineup versus Michigan State and we couldn’t rebound. We didn’t have some success we had in the past, so we went back to Amir and he really produced for us in that lineup,” Thompson said.
During the losing streak, it wasn’t just the rebounding that killed the Buckeyes, but points in the paint as well. With Williams playing less and less, OSU was outscored 120-80 in the paint over the last three games of the losing streak, allowing no less than 38 points in a single game.
Against Illinois with Williams back in, OSU held the Illini to 22 points in the paint, scoring 22 of their own. Fourteen of the 22 came in the second half for OSU, something senior guard Aaron Craft said was a big part of the win.
“I think we got some easy buckets off turnovers, finding ways to get the ball in the paint and we just started playing with a little more confidence,” Craft said. “In the first half we got some great looks, but they’re going in and out, they’re right around the rim and we just knew odds say the next one’s going to go in.”
Next up, Williams and the Buckeyes will hope to take advantage of Penn State (10-10, 1-6) and its lack of height — no Nittany Lion starter stands taller than 6 feet 9 inches — Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.