The news of an indefinite suspension for Ohio State guard Kam Williams earlier this season resounded all the way back to Baltimore, where the redshirt senior played at Mount Saint Joseph.
Friends, former teammates and even his old coach, Pat Clatchey, were pretty much clueless about the reason for the suspension. Many had a similar thought: Was Williams’ college career over?
In Columbus, Williams didn’t have the same concern.
“I never thought it was over,” Williams said recently, sitting in the team’s dressing room at Madison Square Garden during the Big Ten tournament.
As it turned out, the suspension lasted three games over a two-week period. What Williams did to break team rules has not been disclosed by Williams or first-year Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann.
“I just made a bad decision, that’s all,” Williams said.
Williams said he received a lot of support from his teammates and coaches — past and present. Among those who texted Williams was Clatchey.
“He just told me to keep my head up and my faith high,” Williams said. “He just always sends words of encouragement. He’s been doing that the whole season.”
Asked what those two weeks were like, Williams said: “It was cool to take a step back, watch the guys take care of business on TV. I got a lot of individual work in, something that you usually don’t get a lot of with practices and everything. Once I got my rhythm back, I feel like that’s helped me the last couple of games.”
After sitting out three straight victories, including one over then-No. 3 Purdue, Williams returned Feb. 15, coming off the bench for the first time this season and scoring two points in 16 minutes of a 23-point loss at Penn State. He fouled out in just 12 minutes in a loss at then-No. 22 Michigan, scoring four points.
Williams said the temporary loss of his starting position to freshman Andre Wesson didn’t bother him.
“I was just happy to be back out there on the floor, back with my guys,” Williams said. “I wasn’t really thinking about how many minutes I was going to play because I knew it was going to take some time for me to adjust. I was just blessed to be back out there.”
Holtmann put Williams back in the starting lineup on senior day against Rutgers, and the 6-foot-2, 185-pound shooting guard responded with 13 points by going 5-for-9 from the field, including 3-for-5 on 3-pointers.
“It meant a lot. My family came out to see the game, I got time to spend with them. Just to have a game like that in front of them, it meant the world to me,” Williams said. “It’s definitely a memory I’ll never forget.”
Williams has remained a starter. Going into fifth-seed Ohio State’s NCAA tournament opener Thursday against No. 12 seed South Dakota State in Boise, Idaho, Williams has averaged close to 13 points in over 33 minutes as a starter, including 15 points while playing 40 minutes in a double-overtime win at Indiana.
Holtmann has been happy with the way Williams has played since returning from his suspension.
“He responded like you’d hope an upperclassman would,” Holtmann said. “I think think he’s responded really well and I was proud of him for that. He’s really been in a good rhythm and a good flow. He’s done some really good things for us.”
HIs teammates are happy to have Williams back.
“It’s been huge for us. He’s been our best 3-point shooter by far, so just getting him on the court just spaces everything and makes it easier for us,” said redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year. “It’s hard, especially as a fifth-year senior, to take a role as a fourth or fifth option, but he’s taken it and blossomed in it this year.”
Said graduate transfer point guard Andrew Dakich: “He’s a shooter, he’s a scorer, and we need that, especially at that 2-position. He’s done an excellent job all year, making big shots in timely situations. So to have him back and to have him at full strength is huge, especially coming here in late March.”
Thursday’s game will mark Williams’ third trip to the NCAA tournament. As a redshirt freshman in 2014-15, Williams played sparingly in two games, a total of three minutes in an overtime win over VCU and nine minutes in a loss to Arizona. He failed to score, missing a pair of 3-pointers.
“It makes it that much sweeter the last time,” Williams said. “We’re just going to try to go out with a bang.”
Except for the misstep that led to his suspension, the same could be said for his final season at Ohio State. Picked to finish toward the bottom of the Big Ten after the firing of longtime coach Thad Matta, the Buckeyes were one of the biggest surprises in college basketball.
After a 5-3 start, Ohio State won 13 of 14, including its first nine games in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes finished the regular season tied for second with Purdue in the conference at 15-3 and are 24-8 overall. Williams shot a career-high 44 percent on 3-pointers this season and 55.4 percent (51 of 92) overall in regular-season conference games.
“It’s been fun. Nobody expected us to even make it this far,” Williams said. “We just got to keep getting better. I’d be lying if I said we expected all this, me and JT [Jae’Sean Tate] and Keita. Everybody was calling it a wash season, and we kind of took that to heart.”
There were some back home that questioned Williams’ decision to go to Ohio State over Miami in the first place, especially when he was redshirted after getting mononucleosis as a freshman. Though not nearly the scorer he was in high school, Williams has been a solid role player over his four seasons with the Buckeyes.
Williams seems comfortable with the way his career has turned out.
“I feel pretty good about it,” Williams said. “Looking back, I never really been a main guy, never been Option A or B. For me to score 1,000 points never being Option A, I think that’s a huge accomplishment a lot of people don’t realize. I’m just blessed to be on this platform surrounded by great teammates and great coaches.”
Said Clatchey: “I think he made it work. He’s probably going to get his degree. He was always in the rotation. I’m sure he’d probably would have liked to have more of an expanded role. He’s always been a good, solid contributor. They had a couple of lean years. It’s good to see him back in the NCAA tournament as a senior.”