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Malik Williams’ decision to stay turns one-year gameplan at University of Louisville into five years

By Russ Brown
Kentucky Today

This wasn’t what Malik Williams had in mind when he came storming out of Snider High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., as a supremely confident blue-chip recruit for then-coach Rick Pitino eager to get his University of Louisville career underway. His plan was to hang around for a while and then wave goodbye for greener pastures.

“Coming in as a 5-star recruit that I was, the mindset I had after the talks me and Coach Pitino had, I wanted to come in, get right to working and get out of here for that next level,” Williams said during a media teleconference Tuesday afternoon.

Malik Williams (KyForward file)

He was a young man going places in a hurry. Four years later he’s running in place. He’s still here and now he’s even looking forward to yet another season at UofL, with injuries and other factors having forced him to apply the brakes and make a U-turn.

“When you go from coming into college wanting to be a one-and-done and turn into a fifth-year senior, that’s not easy for anyone to cope with,” said the 6-foot-11 Williams, who announced earlier that he is returning to the Cardinals in 2021-22 instead of entering the NBA draft this spring.

Williams story is well-known among Card fans, but in brief: He was expected to be a key part of this year’s team — maybe THE key part — as its only returning veteran and true center. Suffered a broken fifth metatarsal in his right foot in November and underwent surgery. Attempted to come back late in the season, but lasted just three games before another injury sent him back to the sidelines.

Then the storyline changed to whether or not Williams would return for the extra year allowed by the NCAA for athletes in winter sports due to the pandemic.

He ended the suspense last week, and Tuesday elaborated on his decision. In essence, he revealed it came down to two factors.

“When I came into this, my goal was to make it to next level, and not just make it to the next level, but stick at the next level and be able to stay there and give myself a long run in the game,” Williams said. “But I wasn’t ready yet. So that’s what made me come up with staying at Louisville. I just felt like it was best for me to come back for another year and I’m blessed with the opportunity, so trying to take advantage of that.”

In making his decision, Williams said he relied on input from his mother, his former AAU coach and UofL coach Chris Mack, among others, although he emphasized that Mack put no pressure on him and left the verdict entirely up to him.

“When it ultimately came down to it, it was an easy pick,” Williams said. “I never really wanted to leave. I just wanted to explore my options and see what would be best for me over the next year in the long run.”

If Williams needed undeniable proof that it would be beneficial to stick around longer, it came against Duke in the third game of his comeback attempt on Feb. 27. He felt some pain in his surgically-repaired foot and he suffered an injury to his left ankle that has since also required surgery. He is currently in a walking boot.

“That gave me a sense that I needed another year,” Williams said. “I didn’t have that full feel for the game. It was just about getting back out there competing with the guys and trying to make a run for a tournament bid. So there’s no regrets there or anything.”

However, aside from NBA considerations, there was also the desire to write a more upbeat chapter in his injury-plagued career with the Cards after the disappointment of not having played in the NCAA Tournament the last two years. The coronavirus forced the cancellation of March Madness last season, the UofL was overlooked for an at-large spot to become a wallflower in the current Big Dance.

Williams has played in 95 games for Louisville, but made only one NCAA Tournament appearance — in a first-round 86-76 loss to Minnesota in 2019. A sophomore at the time, he started but played only 15 minutes, with most of the time at the center position going to Steven Enoch. Williams finished with five points and three rebounds. His only other postseason experience was a scoreless five minutes in a 66-58 win over Northern Kentucky in the 2018 NIT.

Williams said that UofL missing the NCAAs again this season “pushed me over the top” in making the decision to return.

“I’ve played in one NCAA Tournament game in four years, and it just doesn’t seem right,” he added. “The tournament is the reason you come to a school like Louisville.”

So next time around, Williams wants to craft a better ending.

“Going down for the second half at Duke, missing the tournament, I feel I need a better story to my college basketball career than that,” he said. “So I wanted to finish it up another way. I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again, that’s all I’m worried about really.”

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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