Williams, whose UMass Minutemen will play Stanford in the NIT Semifinals on Tuesday in Madison Square Garden, is averaging more than 22 points, six rebounds and five assists in three NIT games, but his impact is felt beyond the box score.
"The biggest thing he’s brought to the table is his demeanor, his ability to compete and the energy he’s brought to the program. He’s brought that New York City toughness," UMass head coach Derek Kellogg said. "His basketball qualities are pretty good, too."
Listed at 5 feet, 9 inches, Williams was cast aside by bigger programs that dismissed the Bishop Ford alum because of his height.
"My size had a lot to do with it," Williams said. "A lot of big schools didn’t want to take a risk on me because of my size and other schools didn’t want to give me a chance because of my size. It’s overcoming obstacles at the time and going for whoever wanted me."
Williams joined the Minutemen for the 2010-11 season but was forced to sit out after transferring from Hofstra. In his first full season with UMass, Williams was named first-team All-Atlantic 10.
"The season started, I gave him the keys to the vehicle and I was going to feel out what we had and how good he can be," Kellogg said. "Then he comes out and has 20 points and nine rebounds in our first game. From that point on it’s kind of been, let me guide him to what I’m looking for rather than jamming him and coaching him."
Williams credits his time watching his teammates for his breakout sophomore campaign.
"[Sitting on the bench} you learn everything, it’s a different aspect of the game, a different view of the game," Williams said. "You get to learn how guys appreciate the ball, how guys want the ball and how guys like the ball. It is just learning and reading guys. It’s just doing homework, as a basketball coach would say."
Following in the footsteps of other undersized players who have had success on the collegiate and NBA levels, Williams uses his size and gritty play as an advantage.
"I model my game after [Nate Robinson and Muggsy Bogues] because I watched how they did it and get around the floor," Williams said. "Those guys are pretty tough, pretty physical, and that’s what I had to work on growing up."
Williams landed in the perfect situation under Kellogg at UMass. A former Minutemen point guard himself, Kellogg implements an up-tempo system where the position has more freedom on the court.
"Coach Kellogg was great, he played here years ago and I always wanted to play for a coach that played point guard and played on a big stage," Williams said. "I always have to keep my ears open and I can never not listen to him because he knows what he’s talking about, day in and day out."
Williams’ stellar play is still looked at with praise from Fordham’s head coach Tom Pecora, who coached Williams in his final season at Hofstra before both made the jump to the Atlantic 10.
Williams scored 20 points, adding eight assists and seven rebounds when UMass played Fordham at home on Jan. 5.
"He’s a special one, there’s no better example of it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog," Pecora said. "He goes after it, competes, and is one of the best competitors I’ve ever been around. He really loves to play."
Despite being the Minutemen’s leading scorer, Williams is as likely to pass the ball to his teammates in crunch time and they enjoy the trust he has in their abilities.
"It’s fun, he knows his game," UMass forward Terrell Vinson said. "He pushes tempo, he likes to play fast and it’s fun to run with him."
Relishing his role as the Minutemen’s floor general and leader, Williams admitted he was more excited for his teammates, many of who will be playing at Madison Square Garden for the first time. Williams likely will likely have a large cheering section and has played at the Garden three times in his career.
"It’s a great experience, I’m more happy for my brothers, they get a chance to play in New York City under the bright lights in the Mecca of basketball, one of the best arenas in the world," Williams said. "I’m happy to be here with these guys."
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