MORGANTOWN - If the West Virginia University men's basketball team hopes to earn a bye in next week's Big 12 tournament or receive consideration for the NCAA tournament or NIT field, a win this Saturday against No. 8 Kansas is a necessity.The Mountaineers will take whatever help they can get, too, whether that's Terry Henderson's return to the lineup or the Jayhawks coming to the Coliseum shorthanded. Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid will miss his second straight game when the Jayhawks play WVU at noon Saturday on ESPN, and almost none of the Mountaineers will complain given their predicament.Freshman Devin Williams was one player who looked forward to taking a rejuvenated game to his friend Embiid, who most experts say will be one of the first players taken in June's NBA draft. "I call him Jojo," Williams said. "I know him well."They worked out together and played against one another in pickup games in Florida last year. Williams was a senior in his only season at Montverde Academy. Embiid played his junior season the year there before he transferred to The Rock School, but remained close with his former Montverde teammates last year."When you're 7-1, 7-2 and you block shots like he does and you're as athletic as he is, you're a big impact in every game," the 6-9, 255-pound Williams said. "But whether he plays or doesn't play doesn't change what we have to do and what we've got to accomplish."WVU (16-14, 8-9 Big 12) can clinch a top-six finish in the standings and a first-round bye in the Big 12 tournament with a win. A loss leaves the Mountaineers as the No. 7 or 8 seed and forces them to play an opening-round game Wednesday.
An at-large bid for the NCAA tournament will require a win against Kansas and a few more wins next week in Kansas City, while beating the Jayhawks will go a long way toward convincing the NIT that WVU is worthy. Of the past 256 NIT teams, all but three were at least two games above .500.Embiid averages 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game for Kansas (23-7, 14-3). He's shooting 62.6 percent from the floor and blocking 2.6 shots per game. But the 7-foot, 250-pound Cameroonian, who only started playing basketball when he was 16, has battled back issues late in his first college season.Kansas kept him out of a home game against TCU last month and gave him five days of rest. Embiid returned to average 14.0 points and 10.3 rebounds in the next four games, with back-to-back double-doubles at the end, before he was slowed again and put on the shelf for the last two games of the regular season. He'll be reevaluated before the conference tournament, where the Jayhawks are the top seed.None of Embiid's success comes as much of a surprise to Williams.
"I'd seen clips of him before I worked out with him, and a lot of it was just based on potential," Williams said. "But he's, like, 7-2. You can't teach size. You really can't. He's just so big. Any time you're playing against somebody who's four or five inches taller that you, it's good to get a workout and to try scoring against a big guy like that."The Mountaineers got Embiid into foul trouble in the first half of last month's loss in Lawrence, Kan., but Embiid still had 11 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. Williams fouled out in 12 minutes and had four points and six rebounds.Yet Williams, a Cincinnati native whose mother was fond of coach Bob Huggins from his days coaching the Cincinnati bearcats, has been better lately with back-to-back double-doubles. He had only one double-double and just three double-figure scoring games in the first 15 conference games."I'm just trying to figure it out, man," he said. "It's my freshman year. Coach Huggins talks to us about commitment and what it takes to play in a game. For these last few games, I've tried to commit myself and stay focused. Just looking at the task coming down the stretch, it's now or never."
After Wednesday's loss to Oklahoma, Huggins criticized Williams, though without naming him, for holding onto the ball too long and getting into trouble that leads to turnovers or forced shots. He called it "sticky ball" because the ball never leaves a player's hands."We're a whole lot better team if we don't play sticky ball," Huggins said. "You can only catch it and pivot, like, 12 times before it's a violation. At some point in time, maybe you ought to think about passing it to one of your teammates."Williams, who was first team all-state among Florida's many independent schools and helped Montverde win the 2013 National High School Invitational Championship, averages 8.3 points and 7.1 rebounds, but is only shooting 40 percent from the floor.Williams takes and makes jump shots, but has had a hard time converting near the basket. He also has 47 turnovers, a lot for a low post player and more than every WVU player other than Juwan Staten and Eron Harris, who both play and handle the ball considerably more."I guess I've got to be more patient and take more selective shots," he said. "I think I rush it a little bit and get a little bit overaggressive sometimes. I've just got to learn to be patient and poised and make the right decisions. I can't be overaggressive, but I've got to continue to be aggressive."Still, the Mountaineers conceded long ago they don't have anyone who can score inside. They aren't beholden to Williams scoring in the paint to make things easier on his teammates on the perimeter or even drawing defenders outside to open driving lanes for Staten. Huggins said WVU recruited Williams "because we thought Devin could be an elite rebounder."
"He's starting to understand his role more, and we definitely need him to be on the glass," Staten said. "Whether he's scoring points or not, being on the glass is something that he must do."Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.