Sandell: Gophers' deep roster has taken layer of pressure off Williams
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The anxiousness that Gophers senior Rodney Williams experiences before games hasn't disappeared, but the feeling is different.
"Every game there's still that anxiety, because you want to go out there and perform, but it leaves a lot earlier than it used to. Last year really helped boost my confidence a lot," Williams said Monday after the Gophers breezed by Toledo, 82-56, to move to 2-0 on the season.
There's a newfound edge of confidence in Williams' words and in the way he commands himself around the team, and it has carried over into making him the most consistent player on the Gophers' roster.
An impressive junior season in which Williams was asked to become the Gophers' go-to threat on a daily basis has transformed the senior forward. A lack of depth brought on by injuries, primarily the loss of forward Trevor Mbakwe to an ACL injury, forced Williams to step in as the face of the program.
And he responded by finally matching the potential and hype that had followed since he was recruited out of Robbinsdale-Cooper High School. Williams, brought down into the post from his previous spot at small forward, saw his numbers double as he led the Gophers in points (12.2 per game), rebounds (5.6), blocks (54) and steals (50).
Last season, the Gophers' success was heavily influenced by the way Williams played. A bad game from Williams left the Gophers without much to fall back on, until the team started to evolve during its run to the NIT championship.
But with the Gophers equipped with the deepest roster of coach Tubby Smith's tenure, Williams no longer has to harness the same pressure he did a year ago, ridding himself of the feeling that he has to step up as the team's leading scorer on a game to game basis. Williams has finally allowed himself to relax, to not overthink or dwell on plays he can't control.
Just two games into the season, his new mindset has been made obvious. After notching 16 points off 7-of-10 shooting from the floor in the Gophers' season-opening victory against American, Williams continued at his level, top-tier pace on Monday with 12 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
Williams was not the team's leading scorer in either game. He hasn't needed to be. The cast around Williams has seen to that.
The Gophers have found scoring and rebound avenues throughout their roster. Despite a rough, turnover-filled second half, the Gophers had eight players score at least five points en route to easily dispensing with Toledo. Six players hauled in four or more rebounds as the Gophers dominated the Rockets on the boards, 51-27.
"It's real nice to not have to come out and feel like you have to be the guy to score all the points," Williams said. "It makes it a lot easier on everybody else when you have all these different weapons."
Austin Hollins followed up his 20-point outburst last Friday with 13 against Toledo, backed by a 3-of-4 mark from 3-point range. Sophomore guard Joe Coleman has emerged as another key scoring option, producing a 15-point, six rebound night on Monday. Even backup forward Oto Osenieks got in on the scoring barrage with eight points.
Though Mbakwe is still being eased into the rotation by the cautious coaching staff, he is gradually giving the Gophers a contribution in the post that they were missing a year ago. In a limited 14 minutes, he put up six points, while finishing one rebound behind Williams with seven -- noteworthy stats for a player still trying to establish his post-injury identity.
"I'm gaining more confidence day by day," Mbakwe said. "I think the coaches are starting to see that. I need to continue proving to them that the knee is fine and not to worry about it. I think every time I make a move and go off the court they get a little frantic. But I challenge myself to do something more every game. So far I've done pretty good."
The Gophers' bounty of options has opened them up to becoming a team not reliant on one individual every night, which could prove to be the key to Williams taking the next step towards developing into a pro-level talent.
Williams will still be needed to keep his name at or near the top of Gophers' stat sheet. However, if the upgraded quality of depth stays intact as season progresses, Williams will be able to maintain his consistent output without an unneeded, mostly self-inflicted, layer of anxiety.