Jeremiah Williams felt fear more than any other emotion.
The final grades had officially been submitted, and the ruling came down heavier and faster than a Buffalo blizzard: Williams did not make the cut. Canisius’ junior college transfer and backup point guard was deemed academically ineligible for the spring semester.
“It was scary,” Williams says. “I felt like I let the coaches down. It was tough. It was a time of growing.”
This was last year, and what a difference a year made for the Grand Rapids, Michigan native, an explosively athletic 5-foot-11-inch senior guard.
Williams has raised his GPA to 2.9 — “Close to a 3.0,” he says with a hint of pride — and he’s also a key reason the Golden Griffins are 10-7 with a 5-3 MAAC record after losing four starters, including conference Player of the Year Billy Baron, from last season’s 21-win team.
“He’s so athletic,” says Jim Baron, Canisius’ third-year head coach. “He’s so explosive that he can make plays that a lot of other guys can’t do just because of his athleticism. That’s a terrific addition to our program.”
Williams is averaging 6.8 points and 2.2 assists in 17.8 minutes per game off the bench. He is shooting 45.2 percent from long range and 43.7 percent from the floor. His 1.1 steals per game equate to a 3.7 percent steal rate, which ranks 107th in the country.
Williams’ defensive ability has been critical to Canisius’ newfound emphasis on shutting down opponents. The Golden Griffins rank 113th nationally with an adjusted 98.2 points allowed per 100 possessions a year after ranking 241st at 108.4 points.
“He can be a defensive game-changer with the way he plays and with his quickness,” Baron says.
Adds Williams: “I’m really just trying to help the team, do all I can to help the team. It’s defending. That’s what it is. You can’t always control your offense, but you can always control your defense and that’s always my mindset coming into each game.”
Williams had a different mindset last year.
After appearing in Canisius’ first 17 games off the bench, Williams was relegated to a cheerleading role. He blamed his ineligibility primarily on a spat with one particular professor, but he also struggled initially with Canisius’ academic rigors after spending two years at Vincennes University, a junior college on the Indiana banks of the Wabash River.
“[Canisius] is much tougher, the standards,” Williams says. “The academic standards here are much higher than my two-year institution. I’m actually a good student and I’m very adaptive, but that adaption was a little slow when I came here and it affected me.”
Williams adapted last spring semester, buckling down with one goal fueling him: Get back on the court. He became a regular at the student-athlete tutoring center. He took better notes. He asked questions.
He also built a relationship with God.
“I felt like my three years [two at Vincennes, one at Canisius] I was doing things on my own,” Williams says. “Obviously it wasn’t helping me. I was doing something wrong, so I decided to change something. I changed for God.”
He also changed for Baron and the Golden Griffins, who thrive off his productive bench play.
Williams says he felt “no nerves” when he checked into Canisius’ opener against Vermont, his first game since mid-January. He scored just one point in eight minutes but recorded a steal that led to an Adam Weir 3-pointer.
Canisius has won three of its last four games, and Williams’ play has been scintillating. The senior who hasn’t made one start for Baron averaged 12 points, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals in 23.5 minutes during that stretch.
“He really has stepped up in a way that he comes off the bench,” Baron says. “I think he’s Sixth Man of the Year in the league.”
Even if Williams is not a favorite for the honor, he is on track to graduate in May.
“He failed off the team. You know how hard it is to come back? That’s a tough thing,” Baron says. “A lot of coaches would get rid of a guy from community college. He’s doing a heck of a job.”