Whether it’s the ink he put on his chest a year ago or the ink he added to the box score Tuesday night in Akron’s 81-60 rout of Miami at Millett Hall, Xeyrius Williams has made some bold statements.
“It’s a lion. It took about three hours and I did it all in one sitting,” he said as he pulled aside the top of his dark blue No. 20 jersey to reveal the tattoo that stretched from one shoulder blade to the other. “It signifies what’s inside of me.
“I had to be a lion – I had to be strong and bet on myself – to get through all this.”
As for his line in the box score, it had some roar to it as well: 19 points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots, two assists, no turnovers.
“He’s on the cusp of averaging a double double this season,” Akron coach John Groce said of the 6-foot-9 senior transfer from the University of Dayton who’s averaging 14.6 points and 9.7 rebounds this season. “Only 23 players in (Division I) college basketball are averaging double doubles and at one point this season (much of December) he was, too.
“He’s been a terrific addition for us this season. He’s doing everything. He scores it, he defends, he rebounds. He’s a hard worker, a great teammate who connects with the guys and he lets you coach him. And most important, he’s just a great kid.”
And yet, as Williams stood there on the edge of the court Tuesday night and talked about his new life as an Akron Zip, you happened to notice another small tattoo he hadn’t mentioned before. It was on his right hand, near where his thumb and index finger come together.
It was a small broken heart.
He said he got it a year and a half ago, which would make it just a couple of months after he left UD in dispiriting fashion following three seasons as a Flyer.
Although he’d had a breakout season as a sophomore – playing in all 32 games, getting nine starts and averaging 8.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 48 percent shooting from the floor – his junior season was a roller coaster the other way.
He struggled with a back injury, played in just 18 games and saw his production go down in all categories as his frustration and disengagement grew.
Archie Miller, the coach who recruited him, was gone and Anthony Grant had taken over. By the end of the season Williams told Dayton Daily News writer Dave Jablonski he felt “a disconnect with the coaching staff” and that “I didn’t like their plan for me.”
The last month of the season he no longer travelled with the team and was not on the bench for the final home game.
“It was a tough year,” he said Tuesday night. “I’m not saying we had a terrible year (the Flyers were 14-17) but it was just tough seeing my teammates out there struggling and I wasn’t able to help and be a spark. Coming off the injury I couldn’t play and add value like I wanted.
“The injury really hurt me mentally and messed me up. I was in a tough place. I was just mentally out of it.
“I knew I had more to offer, that’s why I felt I had to leave Dayton. I was happy to just be out of that. I wanted to enjoy my last year and feel whole again.”
If he was looking for a place to mend his heart, he seems as if he’s found it with the 15-4 Zips this season.
After sitting out last season to meet NCAA transfer rules, he’s started all 19 games this season and is averaging 30.4 minutes a contest. He had 25 points and 14 rebounds against Marshall, 23 and 12 against Ball State and 16 points and 15 boards versus Tulane. He scored 20 points at West Virginia.
With Groce – who said he first talked with Miller and got a glowing recommendation before signing the former Flyer – he has a coach who trumpets him.
In the process, Williams seems to have a better feeling about much of his time at UD.
He said Grant treated him “OK.” He spoke mostly about his connection with some of the players past and present and how he misses the Red Scare: “They will always have a place with me. Anybody should be grateful to play in front of them.
“I stay in contact with a lot of the guys: KP (Kendall Pollard), (Charles) Cooke, Scoochie (Smith) and Trey (Landers), Jalen (Crutcher), Obi (Toppin), (Ryan) Mikesell and some others. Sometimes we even play video games together. I love those guys and I love that they’re successful, too.
“I saw their game against St. Louis. It was a crazy game and Jalen stepped up and hit a big-time shot. They’re No. 7 in the country now. The only way for us to get to play them now is for us to be successful and keep winning and get to the tournament.
“That’s my main focus now, our team and what we’re doing. That’s what matters.”
Off the court, he found a new course of academic pursuit. Since he was a kid, he was big into video games and now he sees a future in it.
Akron is one of 50 universities in the nation that has a varsity team competing with other schools in E-gaming competitions. The school even offers scholarships and the program is providing all kinds of opportunities for other students with other majors.
Williams is studying communications and through an internship he worked as a broadcaster at various E-gaming competitions.
His mother Kay – who was at the game Tuesday with Cliff, her husband who’s also the Wayne High assistant basketball coach, her daughter Shatila and a group of other friends and teachers from Wayne – said she believes he did well behind the microphone.
“The radio announcer who do the games at Akron heard him,” she said with a smile. “They told me they worried about their jobs because he sounded so good.”
Betting on himself
After starring at Wayne, Williams played in 76 games for the Flyers and had some big games — 18 points against Duquesne, 16 against St. Mary’s, two huge three pointers to lead a comeback at Rhode Island – until everything went south his junior year.
“He couldn’t find his way after he got hurt,” his dad said. “It was a tough year for him.”
Williams said he wrestled with his decision to transfer:
“I was a third-year junior, so if I was going to go I’d have to sit a year to play a year. A lot of guys don’t want to do that and a lot of coaches and programs don’t want that either. The question was: Do you stay where you are because you’re comfortable or do you want to leave and be uncomfortable.
“I was comfortable being uncomfortable. I was willing to bet on myself and take a chance.”
When Akron assistant coach Robby Pridgen was on the Robert Morris staff he had recruited Williams and knew his family and thought he’d be a good addition.
Groce said he also contacted Miller, whom he had coached at N.C, State: “I trusted Archie’s judgement and he thought Xeyrius would be terrific for us, and Arch has been spot on.”
‘My heart is getting full again’
Williams knows some people – especially on the UD fan message boards — might not embrace him as enthusiastically as Groce does:
“I know I’ve got a lot of doubters out there. I see that, but I also love that. It fuels me.”
Against Miami he made 5 of 11 three-point attempts. Earlier this month he went 4 for 4 from beyond the arc against Eastern Michigan, made 5 of 8 against Ball State and last week made 4 more versus Northern Illinois.
He’s envisioning playing professionally after college, but also said he foresees a future in the business of electronic gaming.
And there’s one more thought for the future.
“One day I’m going to cover that broken heart up or at least make it complete,” he said. “My heart is getting full again.“
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