Power Forward Derrick Williams Revs Up U of A
By Brian Price
Does this year's U of A men's basketball seem better conditioned than last year's?
"This year, in our preseason mile, every player ran under 5:30," boasted sophomore sensation, Derrick Williams. "Last year only three guys made it under."
Ah, the difference a year makes. According to Williams, it was all part of an initiative to get better, stronger and faster. "[Head coach Sean] Miller wanted more from us," Williams said.
After an anticlimactic end to last year's campaign, the Wildcats had an offseason--for lack of a better word--intervention. The Wildcats held a players only meeting, and went around the room, talking about what they needed to improve on in the offseason.
Williams wanted to get stronger and improve his endurance in order to have his breath with five minutes left on the clock.
With a new coaching staff in place, the Wildcats finished 4th in the Pac-10 in 2010, but the team was hungry for more this season.
Williams started by slimming down. His body fat percentage last year was somewhere between 12 and 15 percent. This year it's at 8 percent. Overall, he dropped his weight down from 245 lbs. to 237 lbs. The dropped weight has, according to Williams, made him quicker getting up and down the court in transition.
Miller noticed. "Derrick, like all of our players, are products of hard work. We take our strength and conditioning very seriously," Miller said. "From being a senior in high school, to a college freshman, to now, there's no question Derrick has gotten bigger, stronger and more explosive."
Williams also noted that his vertical jump has increased from 31 inches to 34 inches since last season. The Wildcats came into the 2010-2011 season after a preseason filled with two-a-day workouts that included extra cardio, work on the leg press and running. "I feel like getting into better shape has enabled me to be more effective on the defensive end as well as improved jumping ability," Williams said.
The progress is evident.
Last year through seven games the Wildcats were 3-4. Some pointed to a tough early season schedule, but the losses continued as Sean Millers's first full year at the helm ended with a record of 16-15 and a first round loss to UCLA in the Pac-10 tournament.
"We had a lot of young players and a first year coaching staff," said Miller. "The experience some of the young guys got was out of necessity, but the byproduct was that experience leading to hunger and overall improvement which has now fueled more success."
Currently, the Wildcats are 20-4 following a triple-overtime win against Cal last Saturday. Arizona stands atop of the Pac-10 and is ranked as high as No. 21 in the nation. This is clearly an improved squad, and Williams is quick to credit his coach.
"We've bought into to his approach to the game. Our offense is dictated by an aggressive defense that forces turnovers," Williams said. "It leads to fast breaks and a lot of scoring opportunities. Every freshman in college wants to be a part of a fast-paced, up-tempo offense that pushes the ball and that's a lot of what we do."
The Wildcats recently prevailed in a contest against Washington State on January 22, pulling out a 65-63 victory after having been down 10 with eight minutes to go. Williams called it the best win of the year thus far.
"The Washington State win really summed up our current season as well as how far we've come. Last year we would have lost that game by 20," Williams said. "But we had the strength and will to dig in, come back, and get a great win on the road. It started with Coach [Miller] getting a technical foul and that got us all fired up. We never quit and that's how we approach every game: Don't quit."
Williams continues to smash through any thoughts of a sophomore slump by improving on every individual statistical category on the stat sheet.
He leads the Wildcats in scoring, putting up 19.9 points as well as 7.7 rebounds a game (compared to last year's 15.7 and 7.1). It's hard to believe that this dynamic Arizona star was only the No. 73 overall recruit in the nation coming out of high school.
Miller rejects early buzz. "People get caught up in who's McDonald's All-American or ranked in the rivals top-100, and in a lot of cases Derrick wasn't in the discussion, yet, 24 months later, look where he's at," Miller said. "Success is so much about who you are and not what other people think."
Now, Williams is a frontrunner for Pac-10 player of the year and a regular on ESPN's top-10 plays.
"It's pretty crazy," says Williams. "I always wanted to be on ESPN's top-10 plays, but I never would have thought I'd have three of four of those already. It's a dream come true, but hopefully I can get a couple more."
(Check out Williams one-handed alley-oop against UCLA on YouTube. One of the best college plays of the year.)
"You can only imagine the kinds of plays he has everyday in practice," Miller added.
Williams's leadership is based in large part on his tremendous playmaking ability.
"I feel like people feed off of what I do on the court through my play. I don't get in people's faces too much," Williams said. "I mean if I have to then I will, but I feel like my teammates follow me because of my hard play."
Miller agrees. "Nothing can simulate college basketball, and, in our case, a Pac-10 season, until you go through it once," Miller said. "It's difficult to ask someone to be a leader before they have that experience. [Now as a sophomore] there's no question that Derrick is a better player and more vocal. He is so humble and such a good teammate that when he talks, everybody listens."
Miller is the fourth coach in as many years at the UA. He's well aware that the program is still very much a work in progress, but there's ample cause for optimism.
"Because of Derrick's own individual improvement, we're a much a better team and heading in the right direction," Miller said.
That direction continues when the Wildcats take on in-state rival ASU on February 13.