Coach Richard Williams of Mississippi State begins his watch early on game days, hoping he can quickly determine how much offense to expect from Erick Dampier.
Williams is so accomplished at the process that the slightest glance, grimace or smile by Dampier is enough to reveal how the talented sophomore center is likely to play. But recently, the signs, and Dampier’s play, have been less subtle.
And not coincidentally, Williams said, the Bulldogs’ fortunes in the NCAA tournament continue to improve.
How Dampier approaches his battle with UCLA center George Zidek in a West Regional semifinal game Thursday is a key for Mississippi State. The fifth-seeded Bulldogs (22-7), playing for the first time in the Sweet 16, meet the top-ranked and top-seeded Bruins (27-2) at Oakland at 5:05 p.m.
“It’s a real honor for us to be in the Sweet 16, and I’m just happy about that,” Dampier said. “I really haven’t seen (Zidek) play, but I’m sure it will be a big challenge.”
Williams hopes to see clear and encouraging signs from Dampier.
“Erick’s mental approach to the game, as with most players but maybe more so with Erick, really determines how he’s going to play,” Williams said. “He’s a young man with tremendous ability, but you almost have to make him look to shoot the ball.”
Yeah? Tell it to Utah.
At 6 feet 11 and 255 pounds, Dampier dominated the fourth-seeded Utes with 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocked shots in leading the Bulldogs to a 78-64 victory in the second round at the Boise State Pavilion. He had 16 points on seven-of-eight shooting by halftime, displaying ability that probably will make him a very wealthy man one day soon.
“His mind frame was that he was going to dominate the game and that’s what he did,” Williams said. “Usually, you can tell just by the way he moves around in the warm-ups or moves around in the shooting drills.
"(The morning of the game) we had a very good sign when Erick showed up early for the pregame meal. He’s a guy (who) doesn’t show up early for anything.”
Utah Coach Rick Majerus decided, wisely, to double-team Dampier in the second half. The strategy slowed Dampier, but it didn’t stop him.
“If I had to do it again, I’d probably triangle or box him,” Majerus said. “I don’t like to triangle or box, but maybe that’s it.”
Still, that wouldn’t have helped the Utes on offense.
The eight blocked shots tied Dampier for fourth on the NCAA tournament’s single-game list. Only Shaquille O’Neal, who holds the record with 11, Shawn Bradley with 10 and David Robinson with nine have blocked more.
“We played a couple of shot blockers, but that kid is really quick off his feet,” Majerus said. “He changed the game because you go in there and start to look for him.”
Ute star forward Keith Van Horn confirmed his coach’s assessment.
“When you come down the lane, you know he’s going to be there,” Van Horn said. “For all the shots he blocked, he affected just as many.”
Nothing unusual about that.
Dampier has 74 blocks this season--a school record--and is third on Mississippi State’s all-time list with 139. He finished second in the Southeastern Conference in blocks.
“He covers for mistakes,” Williams said. “He allows you to get out and pressure on the perimeter because you know that he’s back there to erase some of those errors.”
Yet as polished as he is on defense, Dampier hasn’t approached his potential on offense, Williams believes.
When Dampier arrived at Mississippi State, Williams had to encourage him to shoot. At Lawrence County High in Monticello, Miss., Dampier dominated on offense mostly because he was taller and stronger than almost everyone else.
“He’s improved tremendously over the two years he’s been at Mississippi State,” Williams said. “He has a lot of improving left to do, but he’s a very bright young man and a very coachable young man.”
When Dampier shoots, he usually scores. He led the SEC in shooting percentage at 63.4%, almost eight percentage points ahead of runner-up Corliss Williamson of Arkansas.
Dampier also led the league in rebounding, averaging 9.9 a game, and is the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer with an average of 13.2 points. During the final eight games as Mississippi State made its run to tie Arkansas for the SEC’s Western Division title, he averaged 13.8 points and 13 rebounds.
Selected first-team All-SEC, Dampier has developed a functional shooting touch and at times displays remarkable quickness for his size. But he also tends to disappear for stretches on offense.
Against Santa Clara in the first round, Dampier seemed somewhat uninspired and had 13 points. But against the Utes, who alternated 6-10 and 6-11 centers against him, he attacked.
“I like challenges,” he said.
Part of the problem is that Dampier is unselfish. He enjoys a good dunk and gratuitous yell as much as the next guy, but he rarely demands the ball and is content to swat shots and grab rebounds.
But Dampier’s teammates have noticed that when he takes over offensively, they get open shots.
“It makes a big difference when Erick dominates the inside,” guard Darryl Wilson said. “Teams have to double down, and that frees the guys on the perimeter to make the outside shots.”
Wilson did just that against Utah. He had a game-high 32 points, including 24 after halftime while the Utes swarmed around Dampier.
Now if Williams could only convince Dampier. Williams realizes what a complete force Dampier can become. However, he’s not completely sure his pupil does.