Best may be from West
ANAHEIM, Calif. — The truth must be told.
There is indeed an East Coast bias when it comes to evaluating teams and players.
Exhibit A: Derrick Williams.
He is the best forward in college basketball. That is nonnegotiable. But he plays for the University of Arizona. All season long people have been force-fed news and info and opinions and clips of Jared Sullinger (Ohio State), Kemba Walker (Connecticut), and Nolan Smith (Duke), to name a few. Even cuddly Jimmer Fredette from the Mountain time zone’s BYU was given a showcase, prime-time game on ESPN against San Diego State.
But Williams, who may not just be the best forward in basketball, but simply the best player, period, entered the NCAA Tournament without anything close to the fanfare of the aforementioned quartet, and why? It’s because the closest thing to a national spotlight game he was able to play started at 6 p.m. Eastern on a Saturday, not exactly a time when many people are zeroing in on college basketball.
Arizona coach Sean Miller is in his second year on the job. His previous existence had been exclusively in the East and Midwest, playing at Pitt and coaching at Wisconsin, Miami (Ohio), Pitt, N.C. State, and Xavier.
“I didn’t know much about East Coast bias, or taking the West for granted, but I couldn’t agree more,’’ Miller said. “If you’re asking me, ‘Do I think Derrick got as much notoriety at this as he deserved?’ No, and in particular [consider] the team he’s on. It’s not as if he’s a great player on a team that won 15 or 16 games. It’s taken us to this round of the NCAA Tournament for everybody to acknowledge that he’s a special player.’’
That’s his coach, you say. He’s got his own bias.
So let’s approach UConn coach Jim Calhoun, whose Huskies have to face Williams this evening for the chance to play in the Final Four. Prior to the San Diego State game, Calhoun joked that Aztecs forward Kawhi Leonard was the kind of player “who has you awake at 4 a.m. the morning of a game.’’ That being the case, what will Derrick Williams do to Calhoun’s sleep pattern?
“I’ve just booked it that I won’t be sleeping at all,’’ Calhoun said, and that might not have been a joke.
There is no one like Derrick Williams in college basketball. Only the burly Sullinger is a comparable inside scoring threat. But the Ohio State phenom doesn’t lead the nation in free throw attempts (319). Williams does. But even that isn’t what separates him from the pack.
He is 6 feet 8 inches, a chiseled 241 pounds, and a certified bucking bronco in the low post.
He also shoots 60 percent on 3-pointers. He was, in fact, 5 for 6 from beyond the arc in the first half of Thursday night’s 93-77 conquest of Duke. The Wildcats trailed, 44-38, at intermission, and the only reason the plane wasn’t warming up on the runway to get them back to their Tucson campus was the fact that Williams had 25 of those 38, including a 3-point facial administered to Ryan Kelly that sent Arizona into the locker room, confidence restored.
The second half was a clinic, the Wildcats outscoring Duke, 55-33, with Williams just a part of the whole with 7 more points. “But that second half might not have occurred if he had not had that first half,’’ Calhoun maintained.
Now, Mike Krzyzewski is known in the business for being exceedingly generous with the analysis of opponents, win or lose. But watching Williams send his team home made even Coach K raise his evaluation game to a very high level.
“He’s just a superb player,’’ lauded Krzyzewski. “He’s as good as anybody we’ve played, or, I should say, better than anybody we’ve played. I thought we played a little better than the score in the first half, but Williams getting 25 kept them in.’’
It’s always better to be lucky than good, and Miller was phenomenally blessed when Tim Floyd, who had recruited Williams, guard Lamont “MoMo’’ Jones, and forward Solomon Hill to Southern Cal, abruptly resigned in the wake of the O.J. Mayo mess. The three headed to Tucson instead.
Williams was a known high school commodity, but he was never considered an elite player. What we’re looking at now is the result of a lot of hard work. Since coming to Arizona, he has gained 25 pounds of muscle and has broadened his game, all while remaining a team-first guy. He says he was never motivated by any perceived ranking slights, as he was by the idea of improvement for its own sake.
“I think I made a big jump from that [2009-10] season to this season, and I plan on making that from this season to next season,’’ he said. “That’s just how I am. I just want to try to get better. As long as I keep getting better my teammates are going to keep getting better, too. A lot of my teammates feed off what I do.’’
Krzyzewski will back that up.
“Williams gives you confidence,’’ he said. “You always know that you have that guy on the court, even when he’s not scoring, he spreads you out. There is a physicality to his game. Clean, beautiful. He’s a beautiful player.’’
Had he played in the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, SEC or even the Big 12, he’d have been seen, and anyone who professes to love the game would have known. Calhoun might prefer that Williams be lying on a beach somewhere, but for the rest of us it’s our good fortune that he will be playing another game of college basketball tonight. Check it out. See what you’ve been missing.