Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Rich Williams ready to make the most out of long-awaited Manhattan return

Rich Williams returns to Manhattan lineup for first time since March 2016 Wednesday night, when Jaspers open season against St. Francis Brooklyn. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

RIVERDALE, NY -- When Rich Williams' name is announced Wednesday night to the Draddy Gymnasium crowd by public address announcer Martin Collins, it will be the culmination of 619 days of rehabilitation, hunger, and waiting that would be enough to drive the most placid of souls over the edge.

Not counting the two exhibition games he and his Manhattan team have played to open the season, the fifth-year senior will take the floor against St. Francis Brooklyn for the first time since March 5, 2016, when the Jaspers were eliminated from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament by Siena, ending their bid for a third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.

A torn meniscus cost Williams his senior season just days before it was to begin, and the decision was made to seek a medical redshirt to bring him back at full strength in 2017-18 rather than risk a premature return and aggravation to an already tender injury. Now just hours away from the culmination of a road made longer by patience, he is simply eager just to don the uniform one more time, commenting in the offseason on how truly blessed he is to merely have the chance to compete again. And with the comeback comes a new set of responsibilities, namely that of being the vocal and spiritual leader of a program looking for a revitalization of the winning culture made second nature when the Brooklyn native was only a freshman.

"I'm looking for consistency from him every day," head coach Steve Masiello remarked when prompted to discuss exactly what he was hoping Williams would bring to the table. "I think that comes with being an upperclassman. That's really the biggest difference. As a freshman or sophomore, you can be good for three days, bad for two, and it's probably not going to kill your team. As an upperclassman, if you do that, you're probably going to kill your team."

"Consistency from the top, that starts with him being the elder of the program, being a guy who's been to two NCAAs, won MAAC titles and all those things. That's something that I'm looking for from him as a player, just making himself better and more efficient."

When last the world saw Williams, he was forced into playing a power forward and center role more often than not, a product of depth issues and foul trouble that forced Manhattan to play a smaller lineup in a season where more than eight scholarship players were seldom available. Since then, though, the trademark depth has returned to the program along with experience in droves, as four seniors and a glut of talented role players will allow for a more anchored role at the small forward spot at which he has been most adept.

"I want to get him playing his natural position," said Masiello of his plans for Williams' last hurrah. "He really hasn't played it in quite some time, even that year, that campaign where averaged 14.3 (points per game) and 7 (rebounds per game), he was playing more of the four. I want to get him more at that three spot, where he can do some things."

Over the years, Masiello and Williams have been through their share of highs and lows, from his lack of early playing time as a freshman and being thrown out of practice to developing into the heart and soul of the Jaspers' defensive intensity. A perfectionist player in much the same vein as his coach, the two have grown together, and it has only strengthened a bond that may be closer than that of some brothers.

"Really, he and I have the relationship that I've had with guys like Emmy (Andujar), Rhamel (Brown), Mike (Alvarado), George (Beamon), AP (Ashton Pankey)," Masiello proclaimed. "Rich and I have had one of the strongest relationships of any kid I've coached, up there with RaShawn (Stores), and I think that's going to be key for our success because I need to know what he's thinking, he needs to know what I'm thinking. We have to kind of feed off each other for this."

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