"You just have to push Wendell, because sometimes he can play soft," guard Dee Bost said. "But Saturday he stepped up, and we need him to play like that every day."
Lewis won't mind that responsibility. "I mean, it kind of boosted my confidence. I was kind of excited when I made the last shot of the game." Excited, and not a little surprised along with practically everyone else who figured with the Dogs down one and Bost handling the ball it would be a driving shot from the guard, or maybe a pitch-out to an open teammate. Lewis certainly figured so.
"I thought Dee was going to the basket, I wasn't expecting him to pass it." In fact the center was only moving towards the goal along the left baseline in case Bost missed, to chase the rebound. Had that happened he'd have likely gotten the carom, too, as the Volunteer big men came out to meet Bost and left Lewis all alone. Bost certainly noticed.
"It so happened I looked up and saw him spin and drop me off the pass," Lewis said. "And I dunked it." And, as he reminded, missed the bonus shot. "I kind of put too much on it and it bounced off the back of the rim."
Now this is not a case of a kid staying humble, though Lewis has assuredly fit that bill through his first two college seasons. He is an, to be generous, iffy shooter at the stripe, 40% for the season to-date; yet had made three of four chances this time. So naturally Lewis wanted to keep it up. Even his coach felt free Monday to make some fun of the backup center's foul foul shooting, rapping his knuckle on the table when reminded of Lewis' unexpected accuracy.
Rick Stansbury isn't joking about how far Lewis has come this season. Or, how he responded at Knoxville when illness put starting center Renardo Sidney on the bench more than usual and thrust more of a load on Lewis. It was a test, and Lewis passed.
"That game he knew he had to pay maximum minutes until he couldn't go. And that probably helped him become more relaxed, knowing how many minutes he had to play."
The twist is that relaxing emotionally has also helped Lewis become more intense physically. The real knock on his play has been not using his strength and size to advantage. Lewis admits he's tended to be a ‘finesse' player instead of bringing the power. So when he crushed that deciding dunk it brought more than the usual post-game cheers and comments.
"A couple of players said the same thing, they were so proud I didn't lay the ball up. Because in the back of my head I wanted to lay it up but I was like nah, I need to go to the basket aggressive and get these two points.
"But yeah, I feel my game has changed from last year because I'm more aggressive going to the basket. Because last year I wanted to be more finesse and lay the ball up; now I'm going to the hole more aggressive and dunking the ball."
Which has to make Coach Marcus Grant happy, as it has been his job to attempt tapping into Lewis' physical potential. Lewis says it has been a daily regimen of coaching contact in post-move drills, and it is finally paying off. Then there has been the obvious need for him to do more than just tide his team over when Sidney needs to sit. Lewis might be averaging under four points and rebounds alike, but those count towards the total just as much as the 14.9 minutes he nets per-night.
"I mean, from last year to this year I felt I needed to step up and be more aggressive and be more focused this year. I felt I needed to take the next step both on the court, and off the court. The more playing, I have got more comfortable out on the court, you know, I feel more free. I'm not worrying about messing up or nothing. So I have got more comfortable on the court."
"As a freshman you never totally get it," said Stansbury, reminded that in a perfect roster Lewis would have redshirted last winter anyway. "The biggest thing with Wendell is understanding the toughness and energy you have to play with every possession. But there's a learning curve for everybody. Last year he played at five, this year he's played minutes at both spots. He gives you a big body and another rebounder, he's become better as a secondary rebounder not a primary rebounder. Start inside and finish around the hole, dunk those balls and don't be casual."
By the same token Stansbury is gradually getting more confident mixing up his frontcourt here in the late season, leaving Lewis and Sidney on the floor together with the soph at big forward. That, too, is an adjustment for Lewis who has spent his career with back-to-basket rather than facing the rim. In one way it is not a major adjustment because, as Lewis frankly relates, "Most of the plays are run the same way" for the five or four man. Not a sophisticated sort of system, in other words.
"But I had to like change my game a little bit, play facing the basket a little bit too because you never know who I might be playing. If a guy is slower than me I can get by them quick, and if a guy is smaller than me maybe I can post him up. So I've got to be able to do both at the same time."
Lewis is getting his sneakers more solidly set under him defensively as well, and if no threat to Jarvis Varnado's records he is leading the team in blocks (29) in his limited playing time. He accepts that Sidney and Kodi Augustus are the best tip-off tandem, but with every such success as last Saturday the case improves for greater responsibilities.
For now, being a big boost off the bench is what matters most at the tail end of 2011, so Lewis says he and guard Brian Bryant have to add even more when they check in than they have in the season so far. Especially now that the bench is one man thinner. "For me and Brian to come off the bench is a big role, knowing Jalen (Steele) is hurt, he was starting for a while. But now we have to come off the bench and play a big role, give other guys rest and help other guys out doing what we have to do on the court."
The Bulldogs practice on campus today before leaving for Arkansas and Wednesday's 8:00 (CSS) showdown. Mississippi State can lock up the SEC West's second seeding and a first-round SEC Tournament bye with a victory over the Razorbacks.