Mike Williams has gradually climbed up the list of fan favorites on the roster of the Rutgers men’s basketball this season for his increased three-point percentage, his hustle and his unselfishness on the court as the team shot out to a historic 11-1 start.
The junior guard has been praised by teammates and first-year head coach Steve Pikiell all throughout the process, but Tuesday marked the biggest endorsement he’s received to date as he was named a co-captain of the Scarlet Knights, joining fellow junior Deshawn Freeman as the official leaders of the team.
Thrilled to share that Mike Williams has been named Co-Captain of our team. Mike is a terrific ambassador for our program & University!! pic.twitter.com/OYkp1tnZNg
— Steve Pikiell (@CoachPikiell) January 10, 2017
But it was something the junior guard did before the wins and the buzz that put the decision in motion. A starter in all but four of his appearances last season for the Knights as they finished 7-25, Williams not only accepted a role off the bench — he suggested it.
“He actually came to me and said, ‘Coach, if you need to change the starting line-up, i’d love to come off the bench, I’m good,’” Pikiell said of Williams. “You don’t get that very often with players, especially at this level. Starting is very important to everybody.”
Pikiell said he made the decision “probably a couple of games ago,” likely following his season-high 18 point performance in a loss to then-No. 14 Wisconsin in Madison.
It was at the Kohl Center where he got his first start of the season, taking the place of sophomore Corey Sanders, who was benched for the first 10 minutes of the contest after missing practice due to a missed flight coming back from a short Christmas break in Florida the day prior.
“I think it’s a perfect role for him,” Sanders said of Williams’ as a co-captain. “He leads us on and off the court. … it wasn’t a surprise to me. He knows the game, he’s been here longer than us so he’s an upperclassmen and we just need those types of guys to step up like he’s been doing.”
Williams would start again the next game against Penn State before returning to his role as the Knights’ sixth man, where he’s averaging a career-high in field goal percentage — including a career-high in made treys, an area the Knights need as much help they could get — and rebounding, a staple of Pikiell’s philosophy.
After providing assistance to Freeman — who leads Rutgers in rebounding with 8.5 per game — on the boards all season, Williams will have the official title and authority to help him be a leader.
“It helps a lot,” Freeman said of having a co-captain. “It’s hard to have just one guy. You got someone else helping you out, telling the guys what to do and things like that. It helps a lot.”
The decision comes a couple days before Rutgers hosts Northwestern in its second Big Ten home game of the season.
The Knights are on a 4-game skid, the first real period of adversity they’ve faced under Pikiell. With 13 more games following the clash with the Wildcats, none getting any easier than the last as Rutgers fights through a conference with a talent level Williams knows all too well, the Knights need all the leadership they could get.
“I think he earned it," Pikiell said. "He’s been terrific in practice, in the locker room ... I thought it was time. He’s a great student and he’s a great ambassador to the program. So he earned it and I’m proud of him for that.”