When Chaz Williams was given the keys to the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball program a year ago, there was little hesitation on the part of coach Derek Kellogg, who placed the utmost trust in his point guard transfer from Hofstra.
Kellogg knew Williams, who sat out the 2010-11 season per NCAA transfer rules but showed glimpses of his uptempo potential as a practice player, was not likely to drive the Minutemen into a ditch.
“I’m more of a careful driver,’’ Williams said when asked if he had any reckless tendencies behind the wheel. “Don’t want to cause any accidents.’’
The 5-foot-9-inch, 175-pound junior from Brooklyn, N.Y., helped steer UMass to a semifinal berth in the National Invitation Tournament last season. He led the Minutemen in scoring in eight of their last 11 games of a 25-12 campaign, averaging 21.8 points over that stretch before his team fell to Stanford at Madison Square Garden.
“It was like a perfect-case scenario for Chaz coming in,’’ said Kellogg, who turned to Williams to revamp UMass into more of an uptempo scheme. “There really wasn’t any competition at the point guard spot his first year, so he was like given the keys to the program from Day 1 when he became eligible.
“The greatest thing that happened is that the other guys on the team knew that they — and we — needed him. So it was kind of a smooth transition from practice player to a leader of the program, in a basketball sense, at the point guard spot.’’
When the Minutemen open their season Tuesday at 10 a.m. against Harvard at the Mullins Center in the ESPN College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon, Williams will be at the controls of a team that returns four starters and was picked to finish fifth in the A-10’s preseason poll.
“I studied a lot of film over the summertime and I just looked at the parts of my game that needed the most improvement,’’ said Williams, who led UMass in minutes (34.9), points (16.9), assists (6.2), and steals (2.2) last season.
“I feel I’ve improved every part of my game and I’m not a guy that just worries about one or two components,’’ he said. “I like to take care of everything at once. I feel like this year I need to be a little more consistent for my team and be the same player from Day 1 to the end of the year.
“Coach wanted me to play like I played during our NIT run and he expects that consistency from me this year.’’
After UMass was within two wins of an NIT championship last season, what will Williams have to do in order for his team to meet this season’s objective of winning the conference and earning its first NCAA berth since 1998?
“I just have to do what Coach needs me to do,’’ said Williams, who had game-highs of 24 points and 11 assists Nov. 3 in UMass’s 87-82 exhibition victory over American International. “Play a strong game and find my teammates when they’re open and just be there for my teammates. There’s going to be times when things are going to be tough and I can’t be the one putting my head down. I’ve got to be the one picking everybody up. I’m just going to have to do everything possible to do it.’’
While he represents the focal point of the Minutemen’s offense, Williams likes the complementary pieces that have emerged since last season.
“Yeah, these guys are all tremendous athletes and they improved their game over the summer so much,’’ Williams said of his teammates. “Jesse Morgan is more of a consistent scorer, consistent knock-down shooter. Raphiael Putney is the same. Terrell Vinson, I can always go to him in the post to relieve some pressure.
“Maxie Esho, he’s coming along well, and he was a sleeper to a lot of people last year, but this year I feel like he can have a breakout year, and Cady Lalanne, he’s coming along pretty good. I feel real comfortable about where we are at the moment, but I know there’s always room for us to get better. So every day when we come to practice, I just push the guys to work harder and try to get better every day.’’
And every day in practice, Kellogg has been there to push Williams to be a better point guard.
“Don’t tell him I said this, but so far in my life, he’s the best coach I’ve ever played for,’’ Williams said. “When he talks, it’s not like, ‘OK, Coach is talking,’ it’s actually meaningful what’s behind his words. I respect everything he says because he played at the highest level and he played on a team that went to the [Elite Eight].
“So for me, to try and take my team there, I’ve got nothing but open ears when he’s talking to me, because I can always learn. I’m always open to what he has to say. I always listen to what he’s had to say because he competed at the highest level with some of the greatest, so I respect him so much for that as much as anything else.’’
Kellogg came to appreciate Williams’s competitive spirit, something Kellogg was known for as the hard-nosed point guard for former UMass coach John Calipari.
“After that, our games were totally different,’’ Kellogg said with a laugh, when asked if he, too, had an ankle-breaking first step like Williams. “Not quite. I could post the ball, spot up and shoot, that was about it.’’
In Williams, however, Kellogg has a point guard capable of doing so much more, one whom Kellogg hopes will take the Minutemen on a thrill ride come March.
“You know what? I say it all the time: I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the country,’’ Kellogg said. “For how we play and how I run our team and our style, he’s phenomenal in the press and running an open-floor game. He has a will to win that rubs off on the other guys and it’s helped us become a better basketball program.’’