NEW YORK CITY — Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell has a new addition planned for his office at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Next to the shelves he installed that he one day hopes to fill with basketballs to commemorate the milestones of the Scarlet Knights rebuild, it’ll be a symbol of the first step he took on his journey towards those goals.
A framed photo of Mike Williams, the guard he inherited from his predecessor Eddie Jordan who seemed to be born for his role inside Pikiell’s system, will be placed on his wall and pointed to as an example of what he wants in his players, in his program and in his culture.
“He was the first guy two years ago when I took over the program,” Pikiell said of Williams. “He’s a dean’s list student. He’s graduating here. He’s been a captain for two years and he’s overachieved. He really has. I mean, he’s really overachieved. Proud of him. He missed 12 games this year with a high ankle sprain. Didn’t think I would even have him back. Tells you what kind of a kid he is, and that tells you what a Scarlet Knight is moving forward. He’ll be an example to me and the rest of the team for the rest of my career. There will be a big picture of Mike in my office and next year at this time I’ll be calling him somewhere and I’ll be wishing he had another year of eligibility.”
Williams career came to a close Friday night with a crushing 82-75 defeat to No. 8 Purdue in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, a game the Scarlet Knights led for the entire first half and never once felt out of until the final 30 seconds.
The end of his tenure on the Banks was a stark contrast to the first half of his collegiate career, one plagued with loss after loss with no hope in sight.
Two years after ending his sophomore season with a first-round exit in the same competition in Indianapolis — a loss which capped off a 7-25 season with a 1-17 record in the Big Ten — Williams walked off on the floor of MSG with his head held high after fighting the third seed in the tournament from wire-to-wire, with 12,000 fans still in awe at what they just saw.
“I’m very proud,” he said. “My first two years, we were kind of the punching bag everybody wanted to play. Now, especially after the past three days, I don’t think anyone wants to play Rutgers basketball any more. We’re not the same team that’s going to lay over and die. We’re a team that’s going to keep fighting. If you let us hang around, it’s going to be a scary sight.”
Williams gutted out most of his 25 minutes on the floor. Recently recovered from a high ankle sprain, Williams took a tumble after a foul that led to the under-16 media timeout in the first half. He limped across the court to his bench to get attended by trainer Richard Campbell in hopes he’d be fit to return to action.
Unless his leg was split in two, Williams was going to get back on that court.
And not only did he get back on the court, he made an impact the only way he knows how — with hustle, effort and flat-out desire. Williams had a team-high eight rebounds along with seven points and a key block that led to a breakaway opportunity.
“I was in a lot of pain, but to be honest, I had a will to win,” Williams said. “I’m from Brooklyn, the toughest people in the world come from Brooklyn. I have a never-say-die attitude. This could have been my last game, in the moment, I just wanted to go out there and give everything I could. I was able to, despite the bad foot, come out and get the most rebounds in the game, get a big and-one, get a key block, key steal, a key outlet pass to get Geo his and-one. It’s all about doing for others.”
The fight, the grit, the personality Williams showed on Friday night is the one Pikiell hopes to spread across his entire program as he enters his third season at the helm. It’s what he’ll point to on the wall of his office when he brings in recruits, along with the empty trophy shelf they can come help fill.
“I’m just glad I was able to lay the foundation for the younger guys and hopefully they can take over what I taught them and teach the next generation,” Williams said. “I believe this program will dance … I just wish I had one more year.”