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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- By his own admission, Amir Williams can be his own worst enemy.
At times, Ohio State's sophomore center looks every bit worthy of the four-star ranking that he brought with him from Detroit's Country Day high school. Throwing down dunks, snatching up rebounds, and sending opponents' shots in the opposite direction, the 6-foot-11, 250-pounder looks every bit capable of being the Buckeyes' best true center since Greg Oden jumped tip in Columbus during the 2006-07 season.
At others, he shows why he spent the first 40 games of his college career coming off of the bench. Bumbling passes, being out-rebounded by smaller opponents, and playing defense with an apparent disinterest, Williams has a habit of looking like less than a shell of the player that was described in the previous paragraph.
The encouraging- or discouraging depending on your point of view- trend in Williams' play, however, is that as Ohio State's opponents get better, so does he.
In the Buckeyes' two games against BCS conference opponents, the Beverly Hills, Mich. native has played his best, averaging five points, nine rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in OSU losses to Duke and Kansas. Considering that those numbers are higher than his season averages of 4.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, and combined with a three-point, four-rebound, two-block performance in nine minutes of action against Syracuse in last season's Elite Eight, it's clear that Williams saves his best for Ohio State's premiere opponents.
In fact, Williams has admitted as much.
"I believe it's just a mental thing, just bringing it every night. Sometimes I do feel like I just clock out," Williams said. "I just seem more focused in the big games. It's a big opponent, so why not be ready for those games?"
The former McDonald's high school All-American's pick-and-choose approach, however, has been met with less than enthusiasm from OSU coach Thad Matta, who is counting on Williams to help fill the void left in his lineup by former two-time college All-American Jared Sullinger.
"Coach (Matta) talked to me just about being consistent. He said I have times where I just tune out and it doesn't feel like I'm playing, like I may be lackadaisical," Williams said. "He just asked me to be more consistent, not playing only in the big games but playing in the games like Chicago State, Winthrop."
Matta admitted to being disappointed with Williams' inconsistencies, but also said that he's seen signs that his progress is heading in the right direction. After a spirited discussion heading into the Buckeyes' matchup with Chicago State on Saturday, the OSU coach said that Williams countered with the focus and intensity that he was hoping he would.
"He and I had a conversation mid-practice yesterday- it was very one-sided conversation- and I'll give him credit, he really, really responded," Matta said following his team's 87-44 win over the Cougars. "That was exciting for me to watch how he finished out practice."
Williams' moment of maturity was just one of the reasons why that after coming off the bench for Evan Ravenel in the Buckeyes' first 11 games, Matta opted to give the sophomore the first start of his college career. Against a lesser opponent in Chicago State, Matta was pleased with the four points, four rebound, and one block in 15 minutes of action that Williams provided his team with.
"I thought he did good. I really did, because he did what we asked him to do and as we've said all along, we need that position to do their job and really, really be effective with what they're doing, and a lot of times, it's not scoring, but he had a couple of seals where guys drove around, shot layups," Matta said. "That's kind of what we're looking for."
Fortunately for Matta and the Buckeyes, Williams should be able to build on his first start as focus won't be hard to come by in a Big Ten schedule that features nine games against currently nationally-ranked opponents. Though he only played in limited action last season, Matta said that he's confident Williams will be ready once conference play begins on Wednesday.
"Amir's been in the program for a year, he's been through a Big Ten season," Matta said. "He has that understanding and knowledge now of what it's going to take mentally as well as physically."
Williams agreed his coach's assessment, stating that conference play could be just what he needs to find some much needed consistency. And as he nears the midpoint of his college career, the Buckeye big man is plenty aware of just how important it is that he takes advantage of his newfound opportunity as a starter.
"The Big Ten is just a dominant conference this year," Williams said. "I just feel like I have to bring it. I don't have a choice but to bring it throughout this whole Big Ten season."
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