UMass point guard Chaz Williams returns home for Atlantic 10 tournament
AMHERST — Back when the area where the Barclays Center now stands was still just part of the Vanderbilt Rail Yard, Chaz Williams used to come regularly to that section of Brooklyn.
Across the street is the Williamsburgh Savings Bank clock tower, which outside of the iconic bridge is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Brooklyn.
Williams and his Gaucho AAU teammates would all meet there before departing on one of their many trips in the early stages of making a name for themselves as basketball players.
On Thursday, Williams, who wears his Brooklyn heritage proudly, will head back to Atlantic Avenue for the Atlantic 10 tournament, which has moved to the Barclays Center for the first time this season. The junior point guard will lead the sixth-seeded University of Massachusetts against No. 11 George Washington at 9 p.m.
“I used to be exactly where it’s at when I was a child. It brings back a lot of memories. It’s just a surreal feeling,” said Williams, who won a city and state title with Bishop Ford in high school. “It’s going to be a very memorable moment going back to play in front of people who haven’t seen me play.”
While he’s looking forward to playing in the building, Williams said he hopes to keep his homecoming from becoming a distraction.
“I’m trying to keep that to a limit and trying to have everybody contact my mom for tickets and things like that. I try not to get too wrapped up in it,” Williams said. “I know there’s going to be a lot of people so I just try to stay away from it.”
There is one exception. His grandmother, Emma Williams, will be in the building giving him an extra incentive to play well.
“My grandmother doesn’t like to travel far,” Williams said. “She’s going to finally get to watch a game in person. She’s been watching a lot on TV. Every time we lost I get a mouthful from her. We have to make sure we take care of our business with her in the stands.”
Williams said his grandmother knows the basics of the game: “She knows the score and turnovers. She asks me how much I scored. How much the team scored and how much I gave up — turnovers.”
Williams said he is looking forward to practicing in the Barclays Center.
“I feel like once we get comfortable as a team in the building, the sky is the limit because we’re going to have so many people behind us there,” he said.
Williams is not alone in his excitement about getting to Brooklyn.
“Our guys feel like the tournament being moved to Brooklyn has elevated (the Atlantic 10) a couple of notches on the national scene,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “The Barclays Center is the No. 1 arena in the world right now. It gives the tournament a big-time feel to it.”
Several other league coaches echoed Kellogg’s sentiments.
I know our guys are really excited and I’d imagine that’s the case for all 12 teams,” Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart said. “First of all it’s in New York, which is the biggest city in the United States and probably the most popular one and certainly a cultural center. If you ask Michael Jordan or Lebron James it’s a basketball center as well.
“We’re excited about being able to go to Brooklyn,” Smart added. “The arena itself creates an added level of excitement with everything brand new.”
Richmond coach Chris Mooney agreed.
“I think the guys are more excited because of the arena being so new with such a cool feel to it. The Nets are new to Brooklyn and (rapper) Jay Z is involved,” Mooney said.
With the Big East Tournament taking place in Madison Square Garden less than six miles away in Manhattan, La Salle coach John Giannini said New York is the ultimate destination for hoop fans this week.
“You can call it the center of the college basketball universe this week with two of the best conferences in the country,” Giannini said. “There’s more NCAA-level teams in New York this week than there are anywhere else in America.”
WILLIAMS HONORED — Williams has two new honors as the Minutemen prepare for postseason play.
The junior point guard Tuesday was named to the Atlantic 10’s All-Conference first team and the U.S. Basketball Writers All-District Team for District I (New England), each for the second time. Williams leads the Atlantic 10 in assists with 7.6 per game (fifth in Division I) and UMass in scoring at 15.4 points per game.
“I’m more of a team player. Team accolades mean more,” he said. “It shows that my hard work has been paying off. I’m honored and it’s a pleasure to be on a list with those guys, but I feel like I couldn’t have been there without my teammates.”
Temple’s Khalif Wyatt was named A-10 Player of the Year. Jim Crews of Saint Louis is coach of the year and Xavier guard Semaj Christon is rookie of the year.
Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier is the District I Player of the Year and Northeastern coach Bill Coen was named the region’s top coach.
TV — If UMass beats George Washington to advance to the quarterfinal against Temple at 9 p.m. Friday, the game will be televised on CBS 3 Now in western Massachusetts. All four quarterfinals Friday will be streamed online for free.
Thursday’s first-round games will be televised on the NBC Sports Network. Saturday’s semifinals will be on CBS Sports Network and CBS is televising Sunday’s final.
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at @GazetteUMass.