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Now at Western Kentucky, former NKU hoops standout Williams aims for C-USA title — and more

By Don Owen
Special to KyForward

The what-ifs concerning Northern Kentucky University basketball last season inevitably focused on the shocking transfer by Carson Williams the previous spring.

A crowd favorite inside BB&T Arena for two seasons, not to mention a member of the Horizon League’s All-Freshman squad in 2016-17, Williams’ unexpected departure left many NKU followers pondering:

• What if the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball had remained at NKU, giving the Norse a skilled, battle-tested, high-leaping presence on the inside to complement Horizon League Player of the Year Drew McDonald?

• What if Williams had played alongside McDonald for a third straight season, giving NKU a dynamic 1-2 inside punch that would have been a nightmare for any opposing coach?

Carson Williams participates in last week’s Pro Day at E.A. Diddle Arena. On the right is Western Kentucky assistant coach Marcus Grant. (WKU Athletics photo)

• What if then-Norse head coach John Brannen could have convinced Williams to remain at NKU following the 2017-18 season? Could NKU have penned a different outcome in its NCAA Tournament script last March?

None of those hypotheticals really matter at this point. That’s because Williams is now at Western Kentucky University, preparing for his junior season. After sitting out the required year as a redshirt, the former Owen County High School star isn’t glancing at the past.

And as part of a talent-laden Hilltopper squad, there’s no reason for Williams to do anything but look to a promising future.

“Everything is good. Obviously, I had to sit out a year and adjust to everything, learn the system and get a feel for the program and the school,” Williams said. “Taking a year to work on my game and get better, that helped prepare me for this season.

“We have some really good pieces on this year’s team. Our expectations are high. For me personally, I’m going to do whatever is needed for the team to win games.”

Winning is nothing new for Williams, who helped NKU post a 46-21 record during his two seasons in Highland Heights. He scored 764 points (11.4 ppg) while playing for NKU and converted 60.5 percent of his attempts from the field.

Williams’ crowd-pleasing offensive repertoire featured an assortment of highlight-reel dunks and power moves. He averaged 12.0 points and shot 60.8 percent from the field in 2017-18 as NKU posted a 22-10 record. The Norse won the Horizon League regular-season championship and later played Louisville in the NIT.

As a freshman at NKU, Williams started 34 of 35 games and helped the Norse win the Horizon League Tournament championship. NKU met Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and Williams scored 21 points in a 79-70 loss to the Wildcats.

Carson Williams throws down a dunk against Wright State during the 2017-18 season. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

But after his sophomore season, a campaign in which he played through a bothersome knee issue, Williams needed a change. And for good reason. During the final two months of the 2017-18 season, his minutes decreased. His shot attempts dwindled. He’d lost his starting position.

Williams, who had amazed NKU fans with his forceful, rim-rattling dunks for two years, no longer appeared to be having fun on the basketball court.

“I don’t know what changed,” Williams had answered in 2018 when asked about the difference from early in the season to the end as far as his shot attempts, minutes played, etc. “That’s a good question.”

Williams decided to leave NKU that spring and eventually landed at Western Kentucky, which had recruited him while he was a prep standout at Owen County High School. Though he was not being utilized in the same fashion his final two months at NKU, Williams never let the possibility of transferring affect his game.

“That’s something I didn’t want to think about during the season,” Williams said. “I always put the game first. I blocked any of those thoughts out of my mind until we finished up [the season].”

He enrolled at Western Kentucky and sat out last season as a transfer. The Hilltoppers posted a 20-14 record and advanced to the championship game of the Conference USA Tournament, where they dropped a 62-56 decision to Old Dominion.

What was the biggest adjustment for Williams last season?

“Sitting on the sidelines, watching my teammates during the games,” he said. “I’m a competitor, so it kind of hurt me to be over there and unable to play alongside them.”

While sitting out, Williams was able to rehab his knee and is now 100 percent. He also worked rigorously in the weight room under the guidance of strength coach Duane Hall. “I worked on getting stronger and cutting some body fat,” said Williams, a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder. “I feel like it’s a much better 230 [pounds] than it was before.”

Williams has also benefitted from playing against 6-foot-11 Charles Bassey in practice each day. Bassey averaged 14.6 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game last season en route to being named both C-USA Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.

Charles Bassey

“Charles is a great player,” Williams said of Bassey, who is projected as a first-round NBA pick in next summer’s draft. “Being able to go up against NBA talent every day is really beneficial to everyone in our program.”

Williams, who has worked tirelessly to improve his outside shooting, noted his role this season will include “a little bit of everything. I kind of go where I’m needed.”

Western Kentucky returns four starters and adds three key transfers — including former IUPUI guard Camron Justice — for 2019-20. The Hilltoppers now feature three former Kentucky Mr. Basketballs on the current roster with Justice (2015), Williams (2016) and starting guard Taveion Hollingsworth (2017).

The prestigious honor of being Kentucky Mr. Basketball, however, isn’t what impresses Western Kentucky head coach Rick Stansbury about that trio.

“We don’t want them just because they’re Mr. Basketball, we want them because they’re good basketball players,” Stansbury said last week during Pro Day at E.A. Diddle Arena. “If they happen to be a Mr. Basketball, that’s great. The three we have are good players and good people.”

In addition, Williams is also a great student. He was named to WKU’s President’s List in spring 2019 and the Dean’s List in fall 2018. That followed his time at NKU, where he was named to the Horizon League’s All-Academic Team for men’s basketball in 2017-18.

Carson Williams scores the final basket of his NKU career, a layup that was goaltended off the glass by Louisville’s Anas Mahmoud during the 2018 NIT. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

And there’s no malice harbored toward NKU, which won the Horizon League title last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. “A lot of those guys were my teammates for a couple of years. I was happy for them,” Williams said. “I had no ill will about that. I was just happy to see those guys make it.”

Ironically, Williams might get to face his former college coach this season as both Western Kentucky and Cincinnati — now under the direction of Brannen — are competing in the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam in November. If both the Hilltoppers and Bearcats win their first-round games, they will meet on Nov. 24.

What was Williams’ reaction when he saw the possibility of playing against a Brannen-led Cincinnati team?

“I really haven’t put much thought into it,” he said. “We play Bowling Green State first, and Cincinnati plays [Illinois State]. So if that opportunity arises, we’ll come out and treat it like any other game.”

Western Kentucky plays Kentucky State in an exhibition game on Nov. 2 in E.A. Diddle Arena. Williams will make his official debut for the Hilltoppers on Nov. 5 when Tennessee Tech visits E.A. Diddle Arena for the regular-season opener.

During his prep career at Owen County, Williams scored 2,967 points and hauled in 1,671 rebounds. As a senior, he averaged 26.3 points and 10.7 rebounds while leading Owen County to a school-record 29 wins.

As a result, Williams is still renowned around the Owenton area and has developed a large following that will no doubt be traveling south to Bowling Green this season.

“My friends and family from Owen County, I expect to see a lot of them down here,” Williams said. “They’ve mentioned they’re going to come and watch me at the Western Kentucky games. That’s always a positive.”

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

WKU’s Carson Williams goes to the basket during a summer pick-up game at E. A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky. (Photo by Steve Roberts, WKU Athletics)

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