NEW YORK — When Chaz Williams decided after his freshman season at Hofstra to continue his college basketball career someplace else, the University of Massachusetts wasn’t at the top of his initial list of transfer schools.
UMass wasn’t first. Or second, or third, or even fourth. The Minutemen weren’t anywhere on Williams’s list. Departing Hofstra, he simply wanted to play for a bigger school closer to his Brooklyn home. One came to mind.
“I wanted to go to St. John’s. I wanted to stay home, near home, and I wanted to play in the Big East,” Williams said.
But Hofstra — taking a step that many schools do in a similar situation — informed Williams that he would not be permitted to transfer to a select group of schools, at least if he wanted to accept an athletic scholarship. All the schools on Hofstra’s list — roughly 10 — were in the New York area.
St. John’s was out. UMass swooped in.
It turned out that Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg had a lot to offer Williams: a fast-paced style of play, higher-profile conference, not much competition for point-guard minutes, and a location that, while not exactly down the street from where Williams grew up, wasn’t all that far away.
Williams was sold. A trip to Amherst, Mass., was his second campus recruiting visit. There would not be a third. His decision to transfer to UMass has paid off handsomely for both player and program. To date — after sitting out the 2010-11 season, as mandated by the NCAA under its transfer rules — Williams has led the Minutemen to a 69-31 record, with two trips to the National Invitation Tournament and a long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament, which is expected to become official Sunday night.
Before that, though, the fifth-year senior who wanted to play his college ball near his family will get to go home. The Minutemen begin play in the Atlantic 10 tournament at the Barclays Center on Thursday at 9 p.m., when they face Rhode Island. Williams won’t have much time for socializing. With his days as a college basketball program-changer coming to a close, he wants them to be filled with a few more victories, and plans on taking the Minutemen to heights not scaled in more than 15 years.
“It’s been a while since UMass had a conference title, and that’s something we want to go out with,” Williams said after practice earlier this week. “Just being in the tournament and being in the Barclays isn’t good enough. We’re trying to win.”
On Tuesday, Williams was named to the A-10 first team for the third straight season, the only UMass player singled out by the league. It speaks to the year he’s had for the 23-7 Minutemen — team-leading 15.8 points per game, becoming the school’s all-time assists leader — but numbers are easy to describe, and big shots easy to remember.
What’s tougher are all the little things that have made Williams so invaluable to the Minutemen. Calling time out to avoid a jump ball because the opponent had the possession arrow and had been on a second-half run (UMass won that game last month at George Washington). Calling plays on the floor before Kellogg even has a chance to open his mouth. Speaking to the team in the locker room, after the coaches had left, following tough losses. Pushing his teammates in practice, not afraid to talk a little trash to someone wearing the same jersey.
Leading, the way all great point guards do.
“He’s been as important as anybody, probably the most important piece, because I do place a lot of value on the point guard position,” Kellogg said. “Our style of play, how the whole program is run, is really predicated on having a point guard who understands the game and can relay what I’m teaching to the rest of the guys. From his energy coming into the gym, to how he plays and performs in practice and games, to his ability to win games, to his leadership, to his toughness, there’s a lot of things that you just need in your team and program that he brings to the table, and it’s been a good match.
“It was really a weird situation where, to me, everything was perfect for both of us. That doesn’t always happen, and when it does, and they make the right decision, it works out for everybody.”
What’s easy to spot — from his frequent, physical drives to the basket, when he’s giving up inches and pounds, and has the bruises to prove it — is Williams’s toughness. Tom Pecora noticed it the first time he scouted him, years ago, when Williams was at Bishop Ford High School in Brooklyn.
“He was 5-5, about 110 pounds, he was a sophomore. His competitive nature and his leadership skills were off the charts, even as a little 10th grader,” Pecora said. “I knew, if he didn’t grow an inch, he’d be a Muggsy Bogues-type kid. He was committed to winning because he was committed to competing. That’s the most important skill there is.”
Pecora, then the head coach at Hofstra, liked Williams so much that he convinced him to attend and play. Williams averaged 9.8 points per game as a freshman in 2009-10, the last season he or Pecora would be at Hofstra. Williams left soon after for Amherst, Pecora for Fordham, where he remains the coach.
It didn’t take long to convince anyone in Amherst who might have been skeptical how quickly the small, skinny transfer could help.
“First time I saw him play, that’s all it took to convince me,” said forward Sampson Carter, also a fifth-year senior. “I saw how fast he was, and I knew. We needed somebody with that type of speed and that IQ, someone to get us the ball in the right situations and in the right places on the court. That’s what we needed, we needed a quarterback.”
Combine the year at Hofstra with the three at UMass, and Williams’s career numbers put him in some elite company. He has scored 1,936 points (his 1,611 at UMass are eighth all time), with 825 assists, and 245 steals.
That kind of résumé has already attracted the attention of professional teams. Before his senior season, Williams turned down a six-figure contract offer to play for a team in Turkey. The club also promised an apartment for Williams’s mother, Diane, and his young daughter, Cheree.
Tempting, to be sure, but Williams took a pass. It seems the place that wasn’t on his preferred list of destinations four years ago is now a place he’s in no hurry to leave.
“It’s always a blessing in disguise,” Williams said. “UMass wasn’t on my list at first, but when I visited, I knew this was the place.”
So why stay, when there was an opportunity to cash in, an offer that many others would have readily accepted?
“Unfinished business,” he said. “Not making the [NCAA] Tournament last year. I just wanted to come back and finished what I started, try to do some good things here that can go down in history.”
. . .
In Wednesday’s opening round of the A-10 tournament, Branden Frazier scored 14 points and Ryan Canty grabbed a career-best 19 rebounds as 13th-seeded Fordham held on to defeat 12th-seeded George Mason, 70-67.
The Rams (10-20) will face No. 5 Dayton (22-9) Thursday.