Thanks to Williams, K-State bench might be the baddest beast in the Big 12
MANHATTAN, Kan. — Laid out individually, they’re like odd pieces of a basketball cadaver, contradictions looking for a home and a fit. Nino Williams has a big man’s game in an off-guard’s body. D.J. Johnson has a football frame (6-foot-9, 250 pounds) and, offensively, a football mindset. Jevon Thomas has a pair of turbo jets for feet but hands of iron (25.9 percent from the floor) under the rim.
Stitch them all together, though, toss in a little lightning, and you’ve got Frankenstein’s monster. A beast.
"No one really notices (but) we go nine deep," says Williams, whose Kansas State Wildcats (15-7, 5-4 conference) host No. 15 Texas (18-4, 7-2) on Saturday in a massive Big 12 showdown for both. "We notice. We know how hard we practice.
"Our motto is ‘Next Man Up.’ If Shane (Southwell) is not playing well, I’m (coming in). If (Thomas) Gipson’s not playing well, it’s D.J. If you’re not playing well, it’s ‘Next Man Up’ for you, (with a starter) coming back in. (Coach Bruce Weber) does harp on ‘Next Man Up,’ and it’s definitely said."
The starters never practice with each other. It’s always a mixture. … You’re never (on) the same team at practice. Ever.
Fun stat: In Big 12 games, only West Virginia has gotten more win shares (1.7), according to Sports-Reference.com, from the No. 6 through No. 10 men in minutes played than Kansas State’s 1.5. Over all contests among Big 12 members, only the Mountaineers (4.6 win shares), Texas (4.3) and Oklahoma State (3.9) have gotten more out of slots six through 10 than K-State’s 3.7.
"We just look to bring energy and bring toughness off the bench," says Williams, a 6-5 junior who averages 5.5 points and three boards per contest. "D.J. plays hard — he gives us good minutes. Defensively, we’re a lot better with D.J. (in there). He can’t score as good as (Gipson), but he brings energy. Omari (Lawrence), he brings energy.
"Sometimes, it’s not your day. You understand that."
Kansas brings future lottery picks off its bench. Oklahoma State plugs in instant offense in the form of deadeye quick-shot/trick shot Phil Forte III, maybe the closest thing the Big 12 has to Creighton’s Ethan Wragg. But what the Wildcats lack in "star" quality, they counter with flexibility and muscle.
Johnson leads the ‘Cats in individual defensive rating (92.7; points allowed per 100 possessions) in league play. Lawrence, a 6-3 senior, can guard rangy twos and threes out on the wing, or bigger point men. Weber subs liberally and comfortably, tinkering with different combinations as the game or foul situation dictates.
They don’t just preach it — they practice it, too.
"The starters never practice with each other. It’s always a mixture," Williams says. "So everybody knows everybody else’s game. They’ve all played with each other. Every day is not the same. You’re never (on) the same team at practice. Ever."
During drills, the staff likes to mix and match lineups, experimenting with personnel groups and scenarios. While there’s an argument to be made for chemistry, familiarity and reps among a set group of five or six, the revolving-door approach seems to fit this particular corps.
"They’ve got a bunch of guys that come in and score," Texas Tech guard Dusty Hannahs noted after the Wildcats’ win over the Red Raiders on Jan. 28.
But Williams — the former Leavenworth (Kan.) standout — is the heart of the monster, its spine and its soul. Among Big 12 reserves, only Baylor’s Rico Gathers (.184) and Forte (.221) had provided a higher rate of win shares per 40 minutes than Williams (.182). In conference tilts only, the wing forward leads K-State in offensive rating (137.1; points scored per 100 possessions); offensive rebounding percentage (12.4; offensive rebounds obtained relative to opportunities while on the floor); win shares per 40 minutes (.237; the average is .100); and offensive win shares (0.6).
And for you traditional-metrics types, there’s this: K-State is 9-2 when Nino nets five points or more, 6-5 otherwise. In the two tilts prior to a Jan. 28 win over Texas Tech, he’d averaged 9.5 minutes and two points — and the ‘Cats lost both by a whisker. In the previous six games, the swingman had averaged 16.5 minutes on the floor and 8.5 points; K-State went 5-1.
"I’ve said since the beginning of the year, you get respect when you win," Williams says. "We know nobody’s ever going to give us credit. We’ve always really been the underdogs. We just try to play hard … you know how it is. Everyone’s going to say their opinion."
Weber has one, too.
"There’s no doubt we need Nino. Nino gives us a great spark off the bench," the coach says. "I know there are some good sixth men of the year around the league, but he definitely deserves some considerations for that."
Et tu, Nino?
"I don’t worry about anything like that. If you worry about that, you’re going to have your mind messed up," Williams says with a chuckle. "I just stay within myself.
"I know my game and just play hard and whatever happens at the end of the year (happens). I’ll be proud of myself whether something or nothing happens. I just want to go deep in the tournament. I just want to win another (Big 12) championship."
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.