If Nino Williams stepped up to the free-throw line late in a game last season, Kansas State fans might have joined in a collective cringe.
But just one season later, Williams is a guy that K-State head coach Bruce Weber is more than happy to see with the ball at the end of the game. Just this past Tuesday, with the Wildcats hanging on to a lead against Oklahoma, Williams made four straight shots from the free-throw line to put the game away.
(Kansas State forward Nino Williams reacts late in the game against Oklahoma on Tuesday in Bramlage Coliseum. Williams has been a spark plug for the Wildcats off the bench).
The Wildcats (13-4, 3-1 Big 12) will take to the court again on Saturday, hosting West Virginia at 12:30 p.m. inside Bramlage Coliseum.
Williams, who is averaging 5.5 points per game and shooting a team-leading 73 percent from the free-throw line, said he’s slowly improved this season after an early illness hampered his production.
“I think the biggest difference is that I was sick early on and now I am just playing with a lot more confidence, I feel a lot better,” he said. “Early on, I was kind of weak and down on myself. But Coach Weber had a talk with me in late November and told me to stay positive, that I would have my time and just help out the younger guys. If you help out people, good things will happen to you and I just think I have been staying positive and playing hard.”
Last season Williams came up big for the Wildcats on occasion, posting his biggest game of the season in a Big 12-opening win over Oklahoma State. But at that time, Weber was still trying to figure out if Shane Southwell or Williams would be the Wildcats’ power forward. He settled with Southwell.
Now, Weber said Williams has begun to understand his role, and what he can bring off the bench.
“Some of its just figuring out who you are, accepting that and doing that, doing your role,” Weber said. “When we put him in there he gives us energy on defense, he gives us offensive rebounds, and maybe we’re not pretty offensively, but we’ve been scoring. He’s just doing what he can do.”
Williams has embraced both his role off the bench and the job as a mentor and teacher to the Wildcats’ group of five freshmen.
When he takes the court, he said he tries to bring the type of energy that can spark a run.
“The main thing is that if we don’t have energy, to bring energy and to get the crowd involved,” Williams said. “I try to get a couple boards and to just bring a lot of energy and a lot of toughness off of the bench. My main focus is toughness and energy.”
West Virginia (10-7, 2-2) is another team that Williams could have success against, as the Mountaineers lack size and depth in the post.
West Virginia has lost its last two games to Oklahoma State, on the road, and Texas this past Monday at home, and Weber expects to see a fired up Mountaineers team heading into Manhattan behind former K-State coach Bob Huggins.
“I think you’re catching them after a bad game,” Weber said. “They played their hearts out against Oklahoma State. They’ve had several games, Gonzaga they led double digits, Purdue I think they led, and they just weren’t able to grab victory. There’s no doubt they didn’t play with the energy, at home, that they usually do. You have to expect they will play at a high level.”
The Mountaineers are led by three guards in Juwan Staten, Eron Harris and Terry Henderson. Both Staten and Harris are putting up 17 points per game, while Henderson is adding 12.
“They’ve got three very good guards,” Weber said. “Staten can get by anybody. His numbers against Oklahoma State were phenomenal and that’s against some of the best guards in the country.”
Staten has also been good in directing the West Virginia offense, with six assists per game.
“That just means that he has the ball in his hands and he’s making good decisions, whether he’s getting to the hoop or creating and kicking,” Weber said. “The other day they didn’t shoot the ball well, but that’s been their thing, their 3-point shooting. For the most part, we’ve been pretty positive defending the 3, getting to the shooters and getting hands up and contesting, so that’s going to be important. But it starts with containing. Once you get beat, now everyone has to help.”
Last Final Four team to be honored
K-State will honor its last team to reach the Final Four on Saturday, as 14 members of the 1963-64 team will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their accomplishment.
The members of the 1964 Final Four team will be honored at halftime of Saturday’s game with West Virginia. Among the 14 members returning to Manhattan for the event include Dick Barnard, Larry Berger, Bill Gettler, Joe Gottfrid, Tom Haas, Jim Hoffmann, Max Moss, John Olson, Lou Poma, Sammy Robinson, Jeff Simons, Roger Suttner, Larry Weigel and College Basketball and Naismith Hall of Fame head coach Tex Winter.
The recognition will be a part of the annual Legends Weekend, which kicks off with a reception in the Basketball Training Facility on Friday evening for all former Wildcat lettermen. There will be a breakfast on Saturday beginning at 10 a.m. to honor the 1964 team at the West Stadium Center prior to the men’s basketball game.
Led by All-American Willie Murrell, K-State won both the Big Eight Holiday Tournament title as well as the Big Eight regular-season title en route to its fourth trip to the Final Four in 1964 with a 22-7 overall record.
The Wildcats won 13 consecutive games, including the Midwest Regional Championship with victories over Texas-El Paso and Wichita State, before falling to top-ranked UCLA, 90-82, in the national semifinals in Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.