The talk of Mike Williams becoming the shooter Rutgers fans expected him to be from the moment he stepped on campus resurfaced once again ahead of his senior season.
Maybe this was the year the Brooklyn native achieved the heights of the hype surrounding him when he enrolled in Piscataway in 2013. After all, his shooting percentage from downtown increased every year since his disappointing 24 percent clip as a freshman.
The early signs were encouraging as he started off hot with a 3-for-5 clip against Central Connecticut State after he recovered from an injury scare against St. Johns, but they were short-lived. Williams missed 12 straight and went 5 for his next 31 attempts from downtown. As a result, he hit double-digit figures just once in his next eight trips to the floor.
And so head coach Steve Pikiell sat him down and challenged him — but it wasn’t to shoot the ball better.
“Mike and I sat down about three games ago and really got back to the basics with him as far as being a terrific rebounder,” Pikiell said in a Big Ten teleconference Monday. “Scoring some points around the basket, getting back to the foul line, and over the last three games, he's really made a concerted effort in being Mike and not just depending on the jump shot going in or out. He's doing the little things, the defense, the loose balls, the jump balls, 50-50s.”
The results speak for themselves.
Williams scored in double-figures in each of his last two games, including a 17-point performance against Fairleigh-Dickinson.
He didn’t need his long-range jumper either — Williams attempted just one three-ball over the past three games. The bump in production came thanks to him heeding Pikiell’s word, with his last four outings coming in as his best of the season on the glass.
Renewed aggressiveness around the rim allowed Williams to return to the stripe. After zero free throw attempts in four straight games, the guard went to the line 13 times against Michigan State, NJIT and FDU. He hit 12 of his 13 attempts.
“When I get rebounds, I have the opportunity to ball up, get fouled and get some free throws,” Williams said. “That gets me into the rhythm of the game, get me inside out. As you saw today (against Fordham), I was able to get some rebounds and get to the basket, do what I need to do. I’ve been trying to make that as a focal point, going down as one of the best rebounders in Rutgers history as a guard, that sounds good too.”
“This is my senior year, I got to let (the shots) come to me,” Williams continued. “Of course I pressed about it because I want to show everybody who doubted me wrong, but I feel like I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. I have to do it for myself.”
As Williams approaches the midway point of his collegiate career, he’s also coming close to a historic feat. He is 21 points away from reaching the 1,000 career point milestone his backcourt partner Corey Sanders reached against Fordham.
“I’ve been joking with Mike, told him I came here and got it before him,” Sanders said. “Mike’s a terrific player to play with. He shoots the ball, he rebounds, he hustles and his time is coming.”
Williams takes the jokes in stride — he’s got bigger goals in mind.
“(1,000 career points) would be a great accomplishment, but my real accomplishment is to make the (NCAA) Tournament,” Williams said. “That would make it a great career for me — get a 1,000 points and get to the tournament.”
The culmination of Williams getting on a roll and approaching the historic mark comes at a perfect time for the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers hosts No. 15 Seton Hall in the Garden State Hardwood Classic Saturday, the biggest rivalry in New Jersey college basketball, a game that represents one final chance for Williams to face his high school teammate and close friend Khadeen Carrington.
The goal for Williams to take Rutgers from where it was when he got there to the NCAA Tournament in his senior season is one he saw Carrington do in South Orange. Getting past the Pirates, a team receiving increasing national recognition which is a legit contender in the Big East, would be a huge step towards that objective.
“He wanted to put a stamp and make history with a program and make history like I did right now,” Williams said of Carrington. “When he got there, Seton Hall wasn’t a tournament team, they hadn’t been there in a minute, and he gets there and they go to the tournament twice. That’s something we both want to do in my last year. Hopefully I get to the tournament this year, too. I’m trying to make history.”
Reaching the tournament would be a deserving end for Williams, who endured a coaching change midway through his career that saw a much more intense brand of basketball. Through the transition, Williams bought in, put his head down and worked.
“Mike has been, from day one, one of those guys that brings it,” Pikiell said. “He's a guy that I can count on. He's a guy that does all those little things that are so important to us. I want him to stop judging the way he plays on whether the ball is going in or not from the perimeter. He's really done a good job with that, and 1,000-point scorer in this league, again, is a tremendous accomplishment by him.”
The first step to reaching the postseason is the signature win the Scarlet Knights lack under Pikiell. After falling short to then-No. 3 Michigan State, then-No. 12 Minnesota and now-No. 19 Florida State, No. 15 Seton Hall represents the next opportunity.
A captain of the Rutgers men’s basketball team for the second straight season, Williams normally maintains the status quo when asked about opponents, saying each game is important and no team is more meaningful than the last.
But given the hype surrounding Saturday’s Seton Hall bout for himself, his teammates and the fanbases, Williams let himself slip in that regard. After putting up 21 minutes against Fordham Tuesday night, he was ready to roll out the balls and compete against the Pirates right then and there.
“I expect it, when I wake up in the morning to go to shootaround, (the line is) going to be outside waiting to get into the gym,” Williams said. “That’s how crazy I feel it’s going to be — Seton Hall fans and Rutgers fans. It’s going to be a great atmosphere. I just can’t wait to play.”