Now a senior, ceiling feels more within reach for U's Williams

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 15, 2012 - 11:54 AM

Expectations of four years ago are all but gone, allowing senior Rodney Williams to play relaxed and become the star athlete the Gophers envisioned.

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Minnesota's Rodney Williams (33)

Photo: Frank Franklin Ii, Associated Press

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The anxiety of playing in a new game will never go away for Rodney Williams, a kid who once refused to go inside his house after returning from a heartbreaking Florida AAU tournament during elementary school. He sat still uniformed in his driveway then, using a basketball like a chair.

Williams doesn't put any less pressure on himself now, as a senior at Minnesota and one of the most important pieces on a Gophers men's basketball team that has high expectations, both within the conference and nationally.

But after last year's postseason -- which was full of personal success for Williams as the team pushed its way to the NIT championship game -- the game feels different.

"A lot of the pressure is gone," said Williams, easily the team's most consistent player early on for the 2-0 Gophers, who play host to Tennessee State on Thursday. "I was able to put a stretch of games together last year, show some consistency, and that was my problem throughout my career here."

Up until then, Williams' career was filled with more questions than answers. As a highly touted local recruit, he came to the Gophers in 2009, the subject of lofty expectations. He was lauded then -- and still is -- as one of the country's most athletic players. The tools were all there for him to become a great player.

But for two-plus seasons, he hadn't always lived up to the hype. He'd shown flashes of dominance, but he lacked consistency. Even if Williams had a great game, the immediate question would be, "Can he do it again?"

This year, the forward's play hasn't even been much of a discussion point. Expectations remain high, but after last season -- when Williams averaged 18 points and six rebounds over the last eight games -- he no longer really has to "prove" himself on the court.

He's averaging 14 points and 6.5 rebounds through two games while making 80 percent (12 of 15) of his field goal attempts.

"He's our best player, and he knows what we need from him on a nightly basis," teammate Trevor Mbakwe said. "He's been playing exceptionally well, and I'm happy that people are finally starting to see what we all expected from him four years ago when he first came here."

Williams has become close with Mbakwe, the only other player left over from a nationally ranked recruiting class that included eventual transfers Royce White and Justin Cobbs. But Williams said that his mindset during games is assisted by his trust and confidence in the entire roster. After all, Williams hasn't been the pegged "star" in any game so far, despite his solid performances.

"It's real nice to come out and not feel like you're the guy that's got to score all the points," he said. "It makes it a lot easier on everybody else when you have all these different weapons."

Coach Tubby Smith said a new polish can be seen in Williams' game in how he reacts when things "don't go his way."

"That's where he's improved as far as not letting stuff get under his skin," said Smith, although he noted that he'd like to see Williams continue to get better in that regard. "I see more of a maturity there, playing with more poise."

Of course, for a player passionate about the game from childhood, that doesn't mean the anxiety at the start of a game evaporates.

"For me, every game there's still anxiety there, just because you want to go out there and perform," he said. "But it leaves a lot earlier than it used to."

• As expected, Alvin Ellis and Alex Foster -- both from Chicago -- signed official letters with the Gophers on Wednesday. Ellis is a 6-5 wing who can play all three perimeter positions, while Foster is a 6-8 forward with good rebounding skills.

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