NCAA Tournament

Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams III is Mizzou’s Final Four connection

Former Mizzou player Johnathan Williams III is bullish on Cuonzo Martin

Gonzaga's Johnathan Williams III, a former Mizzou player who was recruited twice by Cuonzo Martin, is optimistic for Martin's tenure at Missouri.
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Gonzaga's Johnathan Williams III, a former Mizzou player who was recruited twice by Cuonzo Martin, is optimistic for Martin's tenure at Missouri.

More than anything, losing prompted the departure from Missouri for Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams III.

The 2014-15 season was miserable for Williams, who had just completed his sophomore year, and others who played for Missouri. Kim Anderson had taken over for Frank Haith. The program was a mess, and Williams wanted out.

Two years later, Williams is sitting in front of his locker at the Final Four. Gonzaga is here for the first time, and Williams is among the reasons why.

He put down a Styrofoam container of pasta and salad and relived that difficult second season in Columbia.

“Coach Haith coached me as a freshman and we had a close bond,” Williams said. “He decided to leave. Kim Anderson came in, and we had a really, really bad season. At that moment, the program wasn’t going to be good the next couple of years.

“I felt that I needed to find a program that was going to be beneficial to me. I found one in Gonzaga, and it’s been a blessing.”

Williams, a prized recruit from Memphis, selected Missouri over Florida, Georgetown, Michigan State and others. He was the fourth leading scorer for a Missouri team that included Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross, averaging 5.8 points and a team best 6.5 rebounds per game.

But Haith was gone after the 23-12 season that ended in the NIT, and Anderson inherited a team without those top scorers plus a NCAA postseason ban for violations that were partly committed under Haith’s watch. Haith left for Tulsa, and Williams returned to Columbia for a second season.

Individually, it went well. Williams was easily the Tigers’ top player, leading the team with averages of 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

But the Tigers went from 9-9 and sixth place in the SEC in Williams’ freshman season, to 3-15 and last place as a sophomore. Even though he found freedom, especially on the offensive end, he wasn’t satisfied with the environment.

“Not winning was the hardest part,” Williams said. “You spent all that time in the gym. I was getting numbers, but after a game it didn’t matter if I had 20 points and 10 rebounds if we lost by 30. You don’t want that feeling.”

After the season, Williams told Anderson and the staff he was leaving, and a second recruiting process commenced. Missouri had blocked him from transferring to SEC schools plus others like Arizona and Illinois, which were on future schedules.

“That was really frustrating,” Williams said. “But they didn’t block Gonzaga.”

Williams looked at other schools. Georgetown and Michigan State were back. There was brief but notable interest from Kansas.

But something occurred soon after Williams announced he was leaving Missouri. Washington’s Nigel Williams-Goss made the same announcement. Williams liked the idea of playing with a talented guard.

Helping make the adjustment, Williams’ older brother Johnny moved to Spokane, Wash., and got a job.

“Everything was moving in the right direction,” Williams said.

Because he sat out last season under transfer rules, Williams was part of a terrific scout team at Gonzaga. He slid into a starting role and has provided precisely what the Bulldogs need, a steady frontcourt presence that is providing 10.3 points, 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting 59.4 percent from the floor. Williams will occasionally step out and he’s hitting 40.5 percent on threes.

Williams-Goss and the bearded 7-footer Przemek Karnoswki get more attention, but freshman center Zach Collins has admired Williams all season.

“He’s a match up nightmare,” Collins said. “One of the most athletic and strong guys on our team. To have him, it means everything. He’s as big a reason we’re winning as anything.”

Williams was selected, along with Williams-Goss and Karnowski, on the 10-member All-West Coast Conference team. When the awards were handed out for the NCAA West Regional, Williams was first in line, winning most outstanding player honors after a 19-point, eight-rebound, three blocked-shots effort against Xavier in the title game. He also had 13 points against West Virginia in the regional semifinal.

His Missouri years never seemed so distant. But Williams said he’s kept up with the news in Columbia and believes the program is headed in the right direction with new coach Cuonzo Martin, who tried to recruit Williams out of high school to Tennessee and as a transfer to California.

“I still pay attention to the program a little bit,” Williams said. “(Martin) is a good guy, and he’s going to do an awesome job.”

Williams also remembers the Tigers’ new standout recruit Michael Porter Jr., because Williams went to Mizzou with Porter’s older sisters who played at Missouri.

“I wish them all the best of luck and their family,” Williams said.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff