Chaz Williams felt at home on basketball’s grandest stage: Madison Square Garden.
Although he made only one appearance there, the 2009 Jordan Classic, Williams was not awestruck playing in the “The World’s Most Famous Arena.’’ After all, he grew up in Brooklyn, where he starred at Bishop Ford High and as a junior point guard led his team to the New York state championship, averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds.
He stayed relatively close to home when he started his college career at Hofstra, but when coach Tom Pecora departed to Fordham, Williams transferred after his freshman season to the University of Massachusetts in the fall of 2010 and had to sit out a season.
“When I took my official visit, it just felt like a perfect fit,’’ Williams said of his trip to Amherst.
So, when the Minutemen were preparing for their NIT quarterfinal matchup a week ago at Drexel, UMass coach Derek Kellogg tried to motivate his troops by reminding them what was at stake: a trip to the NIT semifinals in New York.
“Hey, let’s not only get back to New York for the seniors,’’ Kellogg told his players. “But let’s get Chaz home.’’
It was all the motivation Williams needed to help the Minutemen (25-11) earn their third trip to the NIT semifinals, where they’ll face Stanford (24-11) Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
The 5-foot-9-inch redshirt sophomore is a sparkplug who patented his game after that of former Celtic and Knick Nate Robinson. Williams helped rally UMass from a 17-point deficit with 16:26 to play at Drexel, scoring a game-high 20 points to go with 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals.
“I am pretty excited to be able to play back home in front of my family and friends,’’ said Williams. “To have the opportunity in the semifinals of the NIT makes it even more exciting.
“It’s going to be a great experience for next year and a good opportunity for us young guys because now we know what tournament ball is all about,’’ said Williams.
Williams has sparked the fifth-seeded Minutemen to NIT road wins over Mississippi State, Seton Hall, and Drexel.
In his first season at UMass, he has exceeded all expectations by leading the team in scoring (16.9 points per game) and earning a first-team All-Atlantic 10 berth and an A-10 all-tournament spot.
“If you look at his numbers and his size and said he was only a sophomore on the first-team All-Atlantic 10 coming off a transfer year, you’d be very, very surprised,’’ Kellogg said. “Most transfers, especially the ones that have been here, have taken a year to kind of dust off some rust.
“But this kid jumped in from Day 1 and had 20-something points, seven rebounds, and spearheaded our first win of the season,’’ Kellogg said. “I think that was a springboard for what we could expect out of him.
“He’s exceeded the expectations of a lot of people, including myself. I think he’s [accomplished] a lot of things I set out for him at the start of the season. But, like most coaches, now that his fingertips can reach the bar, I’m trying to get him a little higher. He still has room to grow as a point guard and he can get better defensively and his shooting can get better, but he’s been a pleasure to coach.’’
While Tuesday night’s game will be Kellogg’s first at the Garden as a head coach, he also has some history there. He played a pair of games as a junior when the Minutemen participated in the 1993 Preseason NIT. As the primary ballhandler of coach John Calipari’s club, Kellogg helped No. 18 UMass upset top-ranked North Carolina in overtime before bowing to No. 6 Kansas in the final.
“We now have a point guard who is an extension of me,’’ said Kellogg. “[Williams] is a competitor and he’s a guy who brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm to every practice, every meeting, every meal, and that rubs off on the team. I think the team has taken on his persona, to a certain extent, with how hard we play. We’re never going to quit or lay down. We’re going to come to compete every single minute that we’re out there.
“And we’ve been able to win basketball games with his scoring and his toughness.’’
Said Williams: “Being the competitor that I am, I felt like I had to make sure I meet my first-year expectations and that was to lead my team to the NCAA Tournament, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that. We fell just short. I hope next year we can go all the way and build for next year.’’
The Minutemen hope to learn from this NIT postseason experience, and Kellogg pointed to his point guard as a prime reason why UMass was still playing meaningful basketball into late March.
“I would say the first reason why we’ve been able to get to where we are from where we were is that [point guard] position,’’ Kellogg said. “The other guys have improved and they’ve gotten better and they’ve bought into what we’re doing and what I’m teaching, but he’s been able to give us a point guard that I can rely on and trust.’’