The difference in Rodney Williams from last year to this year is simple, and can be told in a single anecdote:
When the senior scored only two points against South Dakota State earlier this month, it was simply an anomaly. It wasn't a drawn-out story line; it wasn't a question of reverting to his sometimes-deferring past. And in the Gophers' following game, at Southern California, Williams bounced right back, notching a double-double and sliding immediately back into the consistency that has defined his senior season.
For those who have watched the talented forward struggle to harness all of his natural athleticism and find dominance, this season has been like watching a butterfly flutter effortlessly out of a cocoon. Williams has taken the spark he showed at the end of last season and translated it to what has been a career year heading into Big Ten play, which begins with the No. 11 Gophers playing host to No. 19 Michigan State on Monday.
Did Williams camp out in the gym all summer, shooting jump shots? Did he practice rebounding and finishing drills long after everyone was gone? Did he change some fundamental aspect of how he approaches the game?
Not really. Williams does his fair share of hard work, but the X-factor, the Minneapolis native and Cooper High School product will frankly say, has been confidence.
"I would always let little things get to me in the past," he said. "But having to step up last season when Trevor [Mbakwe] went down, just that confidence in myself and seeing that my teammates are really confident in me, that really helps a lot."
That was when the spark started. With Mbakwe out last season after injuring his right knee, Williams' season changed in two ways: First, he was forced to move to power forward from his spot on the wing; second, he became the team's leader by default.
"Early in that season when he was playing, it was definitely easy to sit back and watch the Trevor show," Williams said. "Being forced into that position [of leadership], that definitely helped."
Both adjustments seemed to have a major effect on Williams' production. This season, he hasn't skipped a beat, displaying impressive consistency in scoring at least 12 points and pulling down at least five rebounds in all but two of the Gophers' 13 games.
"We've all been waiting for it, really," Mbakwe said. "He's shown flashes in the past, but I think last year, especially once I went out, he really had no choice -- the team needed him and he showed up for us. I think he's still riding that wave."
The pressure seems to have evaporated. When Williams has a game like that against South Dakota State, he shakes it off now.
"To have that two-point game a couple years ago, I probably would have fell into that string of bad games again," Williams said.
But this season, he has already proven some things to himself. "When I could see that I can do it -- not just one game," he said, noting that he has been surprised at how he has been able to bounce back in games this season. "That's all it is for me, just being consistent. When I see something working and I can keep going to it, that definitely builds my confidence."
There was speculation in the preseason over whether Williams would be able to produce as he has, with Mbakwe back in the lineup and the possibility of Williams' return to small forward. But so far, Smith has kept Williams at power forward, and together the pair has excelled playing side-by-side down low.
"He's much more comfortable around the basket," coach Tubby Smith said. "We were playing him at the 3 last year, and it was hard for him to guard guys as well as score out on the perimeter."
Monday, Williams will likely be guarding another wing-turned-forward in Michigan State's Branden Dawson, and with more post-oriented opponents in the near future, Williams could wind up seeing some time back at his old position. But Williams continues to surprise himself and feels a resolution toward whatever hits him now.
"There's no next year for me," he said. "I've just got to stay confident myself and go out there and have fun."