The SEC is back in college basketball. In a year where parity is apparent, it is no surprising a team like the Tennessee Volunteers is dominating the SEC. The SEC was always controlled by the Kentucky Wildcats. Or maybe on the rare occasion the Florida Gators or Auburn Tigers.
But this year’s Tennessee Volunteers are a threat to contend for a national championship. The reason? All eyes point to Grant Williams, the star junior power forward. Not only is he a dominant defender but he has become a prolific scorer. And with March fast approaching, it is important to have a personality like Williams in your locker room.
“He has a 6-foot, 11-inch wingspan,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said, “and the one thing he has added to his game is the high-release jump shot. He can take a hit. That is what he does. He can deliver one and take one.”
Williams Nerdy Off the Court, A Star on the Court
Grant admits it himself. He is a big nerd. On every road trip, he is insistent on bringing a Settlers of Catan board game, as well as his Nintendo Switch. All part of the process that makes Williams successful for the Volunteers.
Born in Houston, Texas to an engineer Mother who worked at NASA, Williams was exposed to intellect at a very young age. He was an outstanding achiever all throughout school, getting accepted into Harvard and Yale. But the 6’7 power forward wanted to pursue his dream of playing basketball for a top program. Tennessee was the perfect fit.
Immediately, his presence was felt on the court. As a freshman for the Volunteers, Williams would finish the season being the team’s second-leading scorer (12.6 ppg) while leading in rebounds (5.9 rpg) and blocked shots (1.9 bpg). Williams steadily improved in his sophomore season, leading the Vols in scoring (15.2 ppg), second in blocks (44) and rebounding (6.0 rpg) and finishing fourth in assists (66). This earned him SEC Player of the Year honours, the first for Tennessee since Ron Slay in 2003. Williams’ work ethic and unselfishness as a player is all proof that his commitment he made to Coach Barnes when he joined Tennessee is becoming a reality.
“We want to be one of those programs where every single year it’s like, Oh, Tennessee, Tennessee,” says Williams. “Not just, Oh, they had a good team, they had a good run.”
More Accomplishments to Achieve for Williams
On Tuesday’s matchup against the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Volunteers were firing on all cylinders. They were scoring fast break points. Clamping down on defense, forcing 11 turnovers and holding the Razorbacks to 37.5 percent shooting overall. Most important of all, Grant Williams made the play of the game, with a dazzling spin-o-rama jump shot to put the Volunteers on a scoring rampage. It was part of Williams’ 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists, improving the Vols to 15-1 on the season.
While the young star’s stats have improved from last season (18.8 pts, 7.8 reb, 3.9 ast), there is room to grow. He’s known to get into foul trouble on a consistent basis. According to Barnes, he believes that Williams has not reached his full potential yet.
“Over 60 percent shooting percentage, 12 rebounds and a higher free throw percentage. That’s where I want to see Grant,” says Barnes. “The best thing you can do for people is tell ’em the truth.”
For his entire coaching career, Barnes has underachieved. Highlighted by his six straight early March exits in the tournament, there is pressure for his Volunteers team to perform to expectations. Barnes stresses the importance of playing clean games, generate fast break points and playing relentless defense. The Volunteers this season, led by Williams and 6’6 senior Admiral Schofield, have the SEC’s lowest turnover rate at 16.2 and are second in the nation in sharing the ball (assisting on 68.5 percent of field goals). Their sense of urgency on every possession proves that this team has what it takes to make a deep run to the Final Four, after being slotted to be in the basement of the SEC just a year ago.
“We’re a bunch of two- and three-star guys,” says Schofield, “trying to make a name for ourselves.”
For Grant Williams, the chance is now for him to make his promise of “hanging banners” true.