Since returning to a supporting role, Rich Williams has helped push Manhattan back toward top of MAAC standings as Jaspers further their championship defense. (Photo courtesy of Manhattan College Athletics)
At this time two years ago, Rich Williams was not even on Manhattan's radar.
The guard from Brooklyn, coincidentally a product of the same Transit Tech High School program that sent Rhamel Brown to Riverdale, was on his way to Hofstra, having committed to Mo Cassara as the Pride attempted to return to the top of the Colonial Athletic Association following two years of rebuilding in the wake of Charles Jenkins entering the NBA.
Yet fate, as it almost always has a knack of doing when one least expects it to, intervened. Cassara was fired at the end of a 7-24 season marked by the dismissals of four players during the year at Hofstra, and his prospective recruits, Williams included, each went their separate ways.
With Hofstra in yet another transition, Williams landed at Manhattan, with his former teammate Brown on the roster to help mentor him through his freshman year, one in which the 6-5 marksman shot 52 percent from the field as the Jaspers won their first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship since 2004. With a stable of guards headlined by George Beamon, Michael Alvarado and RaShawn Stores, Williams' role was perfect for a player of his caliber to make just the right type of contributions and not have to be saddled with the burden of having to carry the load despite a lack of experience at the Division I level.
One year, and the graduations of Beamon, Brown and Alvarado later, Williams' role increased, and head coach Steve Masiello went so far as to declare that his now-sophomore backcourt member would have the impact of a first team all-conference player based largely on his potential and performance in offseason workouts and preseason practices. However, through an adversity-laden start to Manhattan's conference championship defense, Williams struggled. His field goal percentage dropped nearly 20 points below his mark as a freshman, even with an increase in minutes and the privilege of starting 12 games for the Jaspers.
Then, in an act of selflessness rarely seen from college sophomores, Williams went to Masiello and proposed a change.
"You know, he came to me a week ago and said, 'Coach, I think we're a little flat when we go to the bench,'" Masiello recounted after Manhattan's 87-79 victory over Siena Friday evening. "He said, 'what do you think of me coming off the bench and trying to get some life, some spark to us?'"
After a seven-point effort against Monmouth last Sunday, Williams appeared as a reserve again Friday, this time torching the nets from three-point range and rediscovering his lethal stroke from beyond the arc on his way to a 13-point effort that was one of five double-figure outings for the Jaspers as they improved to .500 for the first time in an up-and-down season, winning for the eighth time in their last eleven games.
"I think that says a lot about his character that he wants to do what's best for the team," Masiello said of Williams. "It was his idea, and I think you've seen our bench production go way up now with him coming off the bench. When we go with Tyler, (Wilson) Donovan (Kates) and Rich, it really gives us a nice lineup to get after you with."
With an average of 10 points per game in the Jaspers' last two contests as a sixth man of sorts, the change in course has worked out for Williams on paper, in much the same vein as it did for one of Manhattan's upperclassmen who requested to be used in a similar capacity his first two seasons.
"Similar to Shane, (Richards) Rich is unique in the way that he doesn't want the limelight," Masiello revealed. "He doesn't want to start, he wants to do what it's about for the team, so I'm really happy, and I think he set the tone for us from the Monmouth game on about just kind of getting us going."
With a weight being lifted from him in some regards, Williams, who is always one of the more refreshing personalities on the Manhattan roster in terms of his outgoing nature and gregarious smile, displayed a similar body language when echoing his coach's words.
"I just made up my mind that I'll just do anything to help the team," he proclaimed after Masiello deferred the opening statement of Manhattan's postgame press conference Friday to his young prodigy. "The all-league stuff really don't matter to me, to be honest. It did, but now that I let it go, I'm starting to play well."