An early riser, T.J. Williams helping Northeastern to an early rise this season
In opting for a 6 a.m. wake-up call last summer, Williams didn’t just want to be the first player in the gym. He wanted to beat the staff, too.
More often than not, Williams was already hoisting jumpers by the time head coach Bill Coen arrived at the Cabot Center practice facility to begin his day.
“When they see it with their own eyes,” Williams said, “they know you’re putting in the work.”
Williams’ busy offseason helps explain his resounding spike in production. The Texas native has taken full advantage of his opportunities in leading youthful Northeastern to an attention-grabbing start.
The Huskies needed someone to pick up the slack after graduating three 1,000-point scorers. Williams has proven ready for the job, filling nearly every column on the stat sheet through a nonconference slate that included wins over UConn and Michigan State. He leads the CAA in scoring (21.3 ppg) and assists (5.7 apg), heading into a matchup with Delaware Thursday on ASN.
“There’s no secret formula to this other than it’s a lot of hard work,” Coen said. “I think he decided it was really, really important to him to put the time in and to stay focused and to make it a priority, and I think when he did his game took off to another level.”
Northeastern didn’t need Williams in the spotlight his first three years on campus. He just had to keep the offense running smoothly. Pro prospects Quincy Ford and David Walker provided the starpower.
That formula paid off in 2014-2015 with 23 wins, the program’s first NCAA berth in more than two decades and a near first-round upset of Notre Dame. It didn’t work so well last season when the Huskies slipped to sixth in the CAA standings with essentially the same cast.
Williams followed a similar arc, dropping out of the starting lineup for a stretch midseason. His 6.8 points and 23.7 minutes per game were career lows. A lingering leg injury and a one-game suspension for a curfew violation didn’t help.
Williams didn’t need to be told something had to change.
“You have to take a step back and analyze yourself,” Williams said. “Really kind of be your own critic.”
Williams focused on what he could control. That meant more conversations with Coen and fewer days off. He tried to get in at least 500 shots during his solo morning sessions, in addition to the regularly scheduled team workouts. For the first time, he stayed in Boston during the break between the summer and fall semesters to keep at it.
“It’s like a puzzle,” Williams said. “You start to see the pieces come together because you’re doing the stuff you’re supposed to be doing and then you can start seeing the whole picture.”
Williams served notice of the difference with a career-high 30 points and eight assists in a season-opening win over Boston University. The guard has kept it going, including a 17-point, nine-rebound, four-assist effort in the Dec. 18 victory at Michigan State. He’s scored at least 16 points in every game, a mark he didn’t hit once last season.
Williams showed he could take on the big moment with a buzzer-beater to sink Oakland, 61-59, on Dec. 20. He missed the front-end of a late one-and-one that could’ve sealed it and then fouled on a 3-pointer to allow the Grizzlies to tie before connecting on a falling-down fade-away in the lane to win it.
The highlight earned the No. 1 spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays later that night. Afterward, his old teammate Ford – now playing in NBA D-League – shot him a playful text message: “That’s what we doing now, huh?”
Coen is just as impressed with Williams piling up 80 assists against 47 turnovers. He’s found ways to keep scoring without hogging all the shots. The Huskies need him to be able to create for others, especially with three freshmen in the rotation learning on the fly.
“I think he’s just in that wonderful point in his career where the physical, the mental and the emotional are all in alignment,” Coen said. “That’s what you hope for every senior, but it doesn’t always happen that way. He has that balance right now.”
With Williams in the lead, Northeastern has the look of a surprise CAA contender. The Huskies — picked seventh in the preseason poll — are off to a 2-0 start in conference play with five consecutive wins in all. It’s precisely what their newfound star had in mind during all those early summer mornings.
“I’ve proved a lot over this season, not just to everyone else but mainly to myself,” Williams said. “And I still have a lot more proving to do.”
Photos courtesy Jim Pierce/Northeastern Athletics