PISCATAWAY — Sunday serves as the final time four members of the Rutgers men’s basketball team laces up their sneakers and head out to the hardwood of the Rutgers Athletic Center in front of the fans they’ve loved and been loved by.
In fitting fashion, Mike Williams, Jake Dadika, Deshawn Freeman and Candido Sa will do it together.
Head coach Steve Pikiell announced the four seniors will start in the Scarlet Knights’ Senior Day season-finale against Illinois, a reward for the work he saw them put in during his two years on the Banks.
“These kids have done a lot for us and it’s a reward that they’ve earned,” Pikiell said. “I always want to try to do the right thing no matter the situation and I think it’s the right thing to do, especially for these guys.
“I want to thank all four of them. They’ve been awesome and they’re all in line to graduate, which I’m most proud of. It’s a great institution and they’ve done a great job academically. All of them have really contributed.”
Dadika, a walk-on guard who earned the title of co-captain midway through this season, was surprised when Pikiell told him the news.
“I thought that was just a high-school thing when they start all the seniors,” he said. “When he told me, I was excited. I got out, I called my dad right away, ‘I’m starting on Sunday. It’s going to be awesome’ … I’m trying to think what I’m going to do in the handshake line (during introductions). Can’t look like a rookie so I got to get something good.”
It’ll be an emotional moment for Dadika, his teammates and the number of dedicated fans who come out to watch the kids they witnessed blossom right in front of their eyes over the past four seasons one more time.
For some, the emotions have already started.
“I actually felt that emotion (Thursday) when we did our Senior video,” Williams said. “I actually teared up a little bit. They told me to go outside to take pictures of me looking around and it hit me at that moment that it’s coming down to the end.”
Asked what he wants to see out of his team in the final stretch of the season, Williams responded with his most famous characteristic — fight. The same fight he saw against Michigan State, Purdue and Seton Hall — the latter of which he named among his favorite memories at Rutgers, alongside the upset of then-No. 4 Wisconsin his freshman season.
“He had every reason to (not return) with the doctors and as bad of an injury as I’ve been around during the season,” Pikiell said. “To get him back at all was the first shocker with the thing. Now to get him back where he’s productive with the thing is amazing. It doesn’t surprise me. That’s kind of what Mike has done. He’s overachieved, and he overachieved with this injury, too. He did more treatment than any guy I’ve been around. He was on a little bit of a mission to play senior night. He’s going to get the chance to do that.”
Williams and his classmates have two guaranteed games remaining on the schedule. Once they lose for the final time, their time as Scarlet Knights are done. When they look back, they see memories they’ll carry for a lifetime. When they look forward, they hope to see their hard work blossom into a prosperous future for their alma mater.
“We have an opportunity to move up from last (place in the Big Ten with a win over Illinois),” Williams said. “Even if it’s not what I wanted, it’s a stepping stone. That’s what I want my legacy to be — helping the team move up, something to jump-start the younger guys.”
“It’s gone by quick,” Pikiell added. “I would love these guys for another two years but they’ve been great representatives for our program. They’ve swung punches, I asked them to do that and they certainly have. Hopefully they can be the guys we brag about in a few years that got this thing moving in the right direction.”