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How Robert Williams' unlikely return paved the way for Texas A&M's Sweet 16 run

LOS ANGELES — At the end of Texas A&M’s disappointing 15-loss season last spring, Robert Williams’ teammates assumed he was done with college basketball.

They figured the freakishly long, impossibly athletic 6-foot-10 forward would declare for the NBA draft after flashing enough potential as a freshman to be projected as a mid-first-round pick.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect him to come back,” roommate Tonny Trocha-Morelos said. “When he made the decision to return to school, I personally asked him why. He told me, ‘I want to leave this program in a good position. I know I can go to the NBA and make a lot of money, but when people ask me where I went to school and I say Texas A&M, I don’t want them to say I didn’t win anything.’ I was like, ‘Wow, this is a guy who is unselfish. He’s not just thinking about getting money or being famous. He’s thinking about more than just himself.'”

A chance to leave an enduring legacy at Texas A&M was a huge reason Williams elected to return for his sophomore season last spring. He also feared he needed another year of maturity to prepare himself for the NBA’s fast lifestyle and cutthroat competition, having grown up in a one-stoplight Louisiana town and only played one year of high-level AAU basketball.

One year after his unexpected return to Texas A&M, Williams feels comfortable with his decision. Not only has he evolved into a more vocal leader and consistent contributor as a sophomore, he has also helped the Aggies achieve the success that eluded them a year ago.

Williams averaged 10.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2 blocks during Texas A&M’s impressive victories over Providence and North Carolina in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. The seventh-seeded Aggies can earn a spot in the Elite Eight for the first time in school history if they upset third-seeded Michigan on Thursday night in Los Angeles.

“I wanted to come back for this reason,” Williams said. “I also wanted to help my teammates. If we make it far in the tournament, maybe some people can leave who wouldn’t have had the chance to leave. It was about everybody around me, making everyone around me better, honestly.”

Nobody has been more surprised with Williams’ evolution into an NBA prospect than he has himself. He knew he was taller and more athletic than his peers in Oil City, Louisiana, but he didn’t realize his talents were unique until late in his high school career when scholarship offers began to pile up and recruiting services anointed him a top 100 prospect.

Texas A&M forward Robert Williams listens to questions during a news conference at the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Wednesday, March 21, 2018, in Los Angeles. Texas A&M plays Michigan in a regional semifinal on Thursday. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

When Williams arrived at Texas A&M in summer 2016, his teammates quickly discovered that he was a physical marvel.

It happened to Trocha-Morelos when he was playing 1-on-1 against Williams and attempted to hit a step-back jumper over him.

“He jumped from like seven feet away from me and blocked the shot,” Trocha-Morelos said with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is long.‘”

It happened to forward D.J. Hogg during an open gym when he attempted a top-of-the-key 3-pointer and Williams swatted it out of mid-air.

“He was at the free-throw line,” Hogg said. “After that, I had to shoot it higher every time.”

NBA scouts learned more about Williams during Thanksgiving weekend of his freshman year when he led Texas A&M to a second-place finish at the Wooden Legacy tournament. He used his crazy bounce and 7-foot-4 wingspan to alter shots in the lane, rebound out of his area and finish fast breaks with emphatic alley-oop dunks.

Williams became a projected first-round pick after that tournament even though he had yet to start his first game for Texas A&M. His production and draft stock steadily rose the rest of the season even though the Aggies stumbled to a 16-15 finish and lost in the first round of the SEC tournament.

“He surprised himself with how well he did,” Texas A&M assistant coach Isaac Chew said. “I don’t think he knew how good he was.”

There is a different aura about Williams this season even though his stat line remains fairly similar to last year. He’s still not skilled enough to command a double team in the low-post or to consistently knock down mid-range jumpers, but he takes fewer plays off, he communicates better on defense and he takes pride in being a more confident, vocal leader on and off the floor.

“I feel like I stepped up and became the leader on defense for my team,” Williams said. “Last year, we were lost. We didn’t know who was leading. We didn’t know who was going to step up. We all waited to see who was going to be the next man up, who was going to take control. This year, we’re telling each other, ‘Hey, get on your s—.’ I feel like I’ve done a great job doing that.”

Thanks largely to its formidable frontcourt and elite defense, the Aggies have survived poor stretches during SEC play and reemerged as the top 10 team they appeared to be in November and December. They’ll have a chance to go deeper in the NCAA tournament than the program ever has if they can win Thursday night.

Texas A&M would not be in this position if Williams had turned pro, a fact that’s not lost on Trocha-Morelos. He’s grateful that his roommate returned to the Aggies and excited to see what Williams has in store for a national audience on Thursday night.

“He always has something else to show you to bring another wow from you,” Trocha-Morelos said. “He’s always going to bring something new that you’ve never seen before.”

Texas A&M’s Robert Williams (44) celebrates on the bench during the second half of a second-round game against North Carolina in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, March 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!