AUSTIN, TEXAS – When Rodney Williams scrolls through Twitter and sees his name, he doesn’t click.
He won’t let himself.
This time of year, and this year in particular, it’s everywhere. The Gophers are heading into the NCAA basketball tournament — set to face UCLA in their opening game Friday — and considering it’s Williams’ fourth season, it’s as much his team as anyone’s. It’s his time to shine. It’s his time to step up. Everyone wants to talk about it.
But any curiosity that arises is trumped by a different, stronger emotion. Chances are, Williams says, he doesn’t want to read whatever is being said.
And besides, there is burden enough built by another source, one he can’t log out of or ignore.
“I try to stay away from that stuff because I’ve seen some of the negatives that people have had to say,” Williams said. “Everybody has their opinions on things and they’re going to say what they’re going to say, but I can’t pay attention to that because it’s just going to be another distraction for me.”
Williams has blocked out those distractions at times and performed impressively. Through the first nine games of the season, the senior forward didn’t score fewer than 12 points in a game, and he averaged 13 points and 6.1 rebounds through the nonconference schedule. And he’s shown glimpses of his ability in Big Ten play as well. Williams scored 23 points against Nebraska at the end of January, his best total in a conference game, and has given Gophers fans sensational highlight reel-caliber dunks and blocks all year.
But more often than not, he has struggled with consistency and staying involved. He’s disappeared for long stretches. He’s been held scoreless in three of his past seven games. His scoring average in conference play went down to 8.5 points per game.
Williams suffered an injury to his left shoulder in an early February practice, which caused him to miss one entire game and bothered him for a few games more. Now, however, his shoulder is healed, and to his credit, Williams won’t even attempt to use lingering soreness as an excuse for his recent play.
“I’m feeling fine,” he said. “No injuries with me.”
A step back
At this time last year, Williams was hitting his stride, averaging 17.6 points in the past eight games and playing a leading role in the Gophers’ push to the NIT championship game. Twelve months later, it seems Williams has taken a step back rather than a step forward.
“You’ll have to ask him that,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “Because it’s the same offense. Same everything. … We run offenses for him. He’s logging a lot of minutes. He’s getting plenty of opportunities. … He’s worked on things that he had to improve on. So I think it’s probably something that he has to answer within himself.”
In a way, Williams has brought some of the questions upon himself. His high-flying acrobatics and natural athleticism made it easy to attach great expectations to his future, and the Minneapolis native and former Cooper star seemed eager to produce. But while his physical gifts are vast, the thick-skinned, resilient mental makeup necessary for a hometown kid performing in prime time was never Williams’ strong suit.
He’s talked openly about the anxiety he’s struggled with on the court in the past, getting so wrapped up in his mistakes of the last play that he has a hard time moving forward to the next. Now, with the pressure only amped up after a string of struggles in his senior season, those negative emotions — which he had pushed out for some time — have returned.
“I’ve been going back to worrying about the bad things that are going on with my game and not really playing to my potential,” he said. “I’ve just got to go out there and play my game, try to have fun.”
When that kind of internal second-guessing is going on, it’s awfully hard to lead others. Williams, who has admitted the Gophers are a little short in that department, has not surprisingly eschewed the rebirth of himself in that role. Taking charge isn’t necessarily natural for his personality. Accepting that responsibility brings a greater scrutiny as well.
His struggles have left the Gophers reeling and Smith searching for a leader to fill the role Williams did a year ago. Regrettably or not, Williams has read and clicked enough to know there are those who plead for that guy to be him. There is a talented and potential star inside Williams — even a player who could make an NBA roster whether or not he is drafted in June. The key is shutting out the pressure long enough to actually be him.
“It helps if you really have a guy that can take over a game, and I don’t know that we have that particular guy,” Smith said. “I mean, I’m sure he’s there, but I’d like to see him surface.”