West Virginia’s Devin Williams has broken from his slumber, just in time for the rest of college basketball to take notice.
After Williams had an awful finish to the regular season, the junior who wears prescription goggles on the court was clearly in focus in the Big 12 postseason and has the third-seeded Mountaineers (26-8) eager for another lengthy stay in the NCAA Tournament. That starts Friday in the East Region against 14th seed and Southland Conference tournament champion Stephen F. Austin (27-5) in Brooklyn, New York.
After going a combined 2 of 15 from the floor against Texas Tech and Baylor, Williams erupted in the conference tournament, averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds over three games and shooting 62 percent from the floor.
“I left my footprint,” Williams said. “I think a lot of people’s eyes are open. For the most part, I showed myself that I can compete with anybody, I could be a force and I can help my team in a lot of ways.”
Williams was a reason the Mountaineers reached the Midwest Region semifinals in 2015 and has improved both his scoring (13.3) and rebounding (9.3) averages and shooting percentage (.47) this season. His 15 double-doubles are six more than a year ago.
On a “Press Virginia” team that substitutes players regularly to keep fresh legs on the court, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said Williams “unquestionably is the leader of that whole group.
“Devin’s your ultimate team guy,” Huggins said. “He’s not selfish in any way. He’ll continue to get better because he loves being in the gym and he loves working on his craft.”
And Williams is embracing the opportunity now to face teams unfamiliar with West Virginia’s frenetic pace and physical play. The Mountaineers have been called for 795 fouls, by far the most in the nation.
“Our style is very unorthodox,” he said. “It’s going to be fun to see how most people prevail through it and try to break the code, if that’s what you want to call it.”
The East Region will have a familiar start for West Virginia.
Guards Tarik Phillip and Teyvon Myers are from Brooklyn. Teammate Jaysean Paige is from The Bronx.
Huggins has been friends with Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood since the early 1990s, when Huggins was at Cincinnati and recruited players molded by Underwood at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College. When Huggins was Kansas State’s coach in 2006-07, he hired Underwood as his director of basketball operations.
There’s also potential reunions for West Virginia with former Mountaineers coach John Beilein, now at Michigan; ex-Big East foes Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, and a chance to play Xavier from Williams’ hometown of Cincinnati.
There’s also Huggins’ pal John Calipari, whose Kentucky team thrashed the Mountaineers 78-39 in last year’s regional semifinals — West Virginia’s worst-ever loss in the tournament.
“I don’t want to look too far ahead,” Williams said. “If that time does come, I’ll be ready for that moment again.”
But getting past Stephen F. Austin, which has won 20 straight, comes first, and Williams understands there’s no free passes in the tournament, evidenced by close calls against Buffalo in last year’s opener and Maryland the next game to reach the second weekend of play.
“Last year it was everybody’s first experience of being in the tournament,” Williams said. “We did have to psych ourselves out. But being the second time around, we know how important it is to put a team away. The quicker we put a team away, the quicker some of the important keys on the team can get their rest and get ready for the (next) game.”