The saddest part about the end of this season, which will likely be over next week for the Rutgers men's basketball team, is the reality that Mike Williams' college career will be over. The resilient guard from Brooklyn has experienced a lot of ups and downs in his four years on the banks. Statistically, he has been a solid player who has grinded his way to score more than 1,000 points in his career, a noteworthy mark that solidifies his legacy at Rutgers. However, to appreciate the play of Williams and what he has meant to the program, you have to go far deeper than the numbers.
One of the first articles I ever wrote for this site was measuring the legacy of former Rutgers guard Myles Mack. I continue to believe his career is underappreciated for what he accomplished statistically, but also due to what might have been had he transferred out of the program after the fallout of the Mike Rice era. The fact that Mack stayed was hugely important at the time, due to him being the best player on the team and all that he represented. It would have been understandable if he did want a fresh start after controversy engulfed the program, which many of his teammates opted to do. While his last two years playing for Eddie Jordan didn't result in many victories, his leadership and play solidified his importance in program lore. He also made a big contribution that still resonates today, in that he groomed another undersized, hard working guard by taking him under his wing in his last season. That player was Mike Williams.
Similarly, I think the fact that Williams stayed after Jordan was fired when half the roster left will be remembered as a key moment in the Steve Pikiell era. While Williams likely didn't have the same high profile opportunities awaiting him if he left like Mack did, he could have started over at a solid mid-major program. He could have gone somewhere and been the top scorer, if that's what he wanted. Williams confirmed last year he thought long and hard about leaving, but ultimately decided he wanted to stay. Players like Mack and Williams stand out as loyal sons of this program in a time when there are more and more transfers within college basketball, year after year. Even more so, by staying at Rutgers by choice, a program with a decade plus streak of losing seasons and an unfortunate tradition rich with players who have done well later in their careers after transferring out, he demonstrated strong character and gave Pikiell a key player to work with as he began a massive rebuilding of the program.
It was a different situation for Mike, who was never considered the best guard on the roster between Mack and Corey Sanders during his career. He wasn't a 4-star recruit like them either. The thing I love about Williams is that he is the ultimate worker who has struggled at times, but is defined by his fight and perseverance. Mike is also a good kid and a class act. He’s been a major influence on this team and has been a positive factor in the players buying into Pikiell's culture the past two years.
He ultimately has personified the coach not who brought him here, but who inherited him instead. It's a product of Mike believing in the culture that Pikiell has built so far. He isn't the most talented player on the team or even in his own backcourt, but his grit and effort have stood apart in his career. The little things have always been a focal point in Mike's game. At 6'2" and 200 pounds, he has been a really good rebounder since Pikiell’s arrival and stood out as the best rebounding guard in the Big Ten last season, when he was healthy most of the year. In his first two seasons at Rutgers under Eddie Jordan, Williams only had more than 5 rebounds in a game three times in 61 contests. In the past two seasons under Pikiell, Williams has exceeded that mark eighteen times in 55 contests and it would likely be higher if he hadn’t missed 8 games his senior year due to injuries.
Williams is the unquestioned heart and soul of this team and when he missed seven games due to an ankle injury during Big Ten play, Rutgers lacked the same fight at times without its senior captain. When Mack graduated three years ago, Williams was the natural choice to pick up the torch of being the leader for the program moving forward. The soft spoken guard has been just that for the past three years and this season he has been grooming Geo Baker to follow in his own footsteps to push the program forward once he is gone. It’s a lineage that should give Rutgers fans confidence that the program is being led by the right type of players and young men.
It's a big reason why it was so important that Williams chose to stay two years ago and he should be fondly remembered for the sacrifices he made for the program. He began his career as a starter as a freshman and sophomore, averaging 12.1 points a game in 2015-2016 season. Under Pikiell, he has almost exclusively come off the bench and has scored less, but he has embraced his role and is usually on the floor when it matters most, at the end of games. Still, not every player, especially a senior captain, would be okay with an under recruited freshman starting over him (Baker). His selfless attitude and work ethic are exactly what Pikiell needs from his entire roster. Mike’s importance to the program goes way beyond stats.
On the court, he has had plenty of highlights and bright spots in his career. Here are some of my favorites moments in his four years on the banks:
- In his collegiate and Rutgers debut, Williams filled up the stat sheet with 10 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and 2 three-pointers. He made it clear from day one that his versatility would be an asset.
- In the final game of the 2015-2016 regular season and the last time Eddie Jordan coached at the RAC, Williams scored a career high and game high 29 points, making 6 of 8 three-pointers and 9 of 10 from the free throw line. It was the only Big Ten win during that season.
- As a junior last season, Mike starred in both games that Rutgers played at Madison Square Garden, a venue he played at in high school and considers his home court. He produced 19 points and 6 rebounds in a win over Fordham, while scoring 18 points and grabbing 8 rebounds in the overtime loss to Wisconsin. It was two of the better games of his career.
- In the last season’s home finale against Illinois, Rutgers trailed by 10 points midway through the second half and Williams had taken a pretty solid hit on the head. He returned soon after and in a little over a minute’s time, Williams hit back to back three-pointers and grabbed two rebounds in between that changed the game. Rutgers came back to win 62-59, clinching their most conference wins since joining the league and giving the team momentum ahead of what turned out to be their first ever Big Ten Tournament victory a few days later. This is what Williams told me after the game:
“That’s how we play, that’s my motto, no matter how many times life knocks you down, you always have to get back up and keep on fighting. After I got hurt, I’m still feeling my head a little bit, but nothing is going to stop me from playing this game and being there for my seniors. They wanted this and I wanted to win this game for them. I did anything possible for that to happen.”
- In that Big Ten Tournament win over Ohio State, Mike Williams was playing with an undisclosed arm injury. While his shot wasn’t falling (2-9 FG; 0-5 from three-point range), Williams played great defense and scrapped his way to 9 rebounds.
This season has not gone as planned for Williams, who has missed 8 games due to two different injuries. Despite the setbacks, he has still provided a steady presence off the bench and is averaging 8.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, as well as 0.9 assists and steals. The defining moment of the season has been the come from behind victory over Seton Hall. The moment that clinched the win was when Williams battled among the trees inside and improbably came down with the rebound. He was fouled and converted one free throw, making it a two possession game in the final seconds, sealing the improbable victory.
Mike Williams ices the game. Rutgers did the damn thing. pic.twitter.com/nyIJkuEsJZ— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) December 16, 2017
With the four seniors playing their last home game at the RAC on Sunday (vs. Illinois at 3 p.m.), Williams, Deshawn Freeman, Candido Sa, and Jake Dadika all deserve to be honored in front of the home faithful. They have all worked hard and represented Rutgers basketball in a positive way in their careers. However, Williams is the only four year scholarship player among them and deserves the loudest ovation, not only for his loyalty and effort throughout his career, but for what he has meant to this program. His tenacity, toughness and leadership will be sorely missed after this season is over. Williams has sacrificed individual stats, played through multiple injuries, and been the most reliable player in recent seasons who's team first attitude has been a driving force in the Pikiell era. His legacy is complete and there is only one way to describe the Rutgers career of Mike Williams...he was a true warrior.