Men’s basketball: Keshawn Williams leading NIU as MAC play set to start

Northern Illinois Huskies guard Keshawn Williams gets to the basket ahead of Albany Great Danes forward Trey Hutcheson during their game Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in the Convocation Center at NIU in DeKalb.

DeKALB — Three Albany defenders closed in on Keshawn Williams, knowing that the NIU guard was likely about to slash to the bucket.

It didn’t matter. He took on the three defenders and scored. But Tuesday’s game at the Convocation Center ended up as an 83-78 loss for the Huskies, their ninth of the year, despite 23 points and five assists from Williams, a junior who is in his second year with the program.

“We haven’t really won a lot of games, but I do see the game slowing down for me,” Williams said. “One thing, like coach [Rashon Burno] said, I struggle with is being a leader. I feel like I lead by example. But I need to be more of a vocal leader and that’s something I need to work on.”

The Huskies (4-9) closed out the nonconference slate Thursday at Indiana State. Williams matched a career-high with 32 points, helping the Huskies stun the 17-point favorite Sycamores (9-3), 67-57. He also had a game-best nine rebounds.

Williams graduated from Bloom High School in Chicago Heights, then spent a year at Tulsa before transferring in when Burno took over the program in March 2021. He averaged 16.3 points per game last season, and is up to almost 18.5 so far this season.

With conference play starting January 3 at Akron, Williams said he is confident the Huskies, who were picked to finish last in the MAC, can turn a lot of heads despite their record. The junior thinks NIU’s showing before the break – even in the loss to Albany – shows the team is turning a corner.

“I’m not worried about MAC play at all,” Williams said. “One thing I can say about this team is down 20, up 20, we’re going to compete. Even [against Albany] we could have fractured and broke but we stuck to the plan and we continued to compete. That’s one thing I can say about this team. We’re going to work hard and we’re going to compete.”

Northern Illinois Huskies guard Keshawn Williams slams home a basket during their game against Albany Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in the Convocation Center at NIU in DeKalb.

Burno, too, said he thinks the Huskies can surprise some people in conference play this year. And he said that starts with Williams.

“If Keshawn Williams plays and leads the way we need, we’ll be a real dangerous team,” Burno said. “It’s not just Keshawn, it’s other players as well. But it starts with him.”

Burno said every element of Williams’ game is progressing well, he has good grades and other off-the-court intangibles. Now, he wants to see Williams become a more vocal leader during practices.

“There’s a level of respect as the alpha male,” Burno said. “The herd follows the head lion. He’s the head of the snake. He needs to do a better job of making sure guys understand every day is important. You can’t give days back on and off the court.”

Williams said the season so far has been a learning process. David Coit, who led the Huskies in scoring against Albany and is averaging almost 14 points per game, transferred in from Atlantic Cape Community College. Zarique Nutter is also averaging double figures after transferring from Clarendon College. There are also four international players on the roster.

“We just have to find ways to win,” Williams said. “Guys are still learning. We have a lot of new faces. We have (international players). We have guys like David, Zarique coming from JUCOs, still learning the system. We’re all learning how to play with each other. I feel like MAC play, we all need to come back with the right mindset and I think we’ll be fine.”