Basketball as chess? New Mexico’s Williams sees the game from a unique perspective

PORTLAND, Ore. – Not long after New Mexico point guard Kendall Williams revealed his life-long passion for chess to an Albuquerque newspaper last year, he received a message from a graduate student at the school.

Chess aficionado Daniel Cornish wanted to see if Williams was really any good, so he challenged him to a match. The two have since split a pair of matches, with Williams winning the first and Cornish taking the second.

“We still have to play a third game,” Williams said. “I’ve been telling him I’m busy right now because we’ve been on the road, but when I get back I have a score to settle.”

Kendall Williams delivered two clutch shots for the Lobos on Thursday and finished with 16 points.
(Getty Images)

Chess is certainly an unusual hobby for a Division I basketball star, but Williams insists his two passions actually complement one another. Just like a successful chess player must be able to see two or three moves ahead and assess when to attack and when to retreat, a successful point guard needs to be able to do the same thing on the basketball court.

Never will Williams need those attributes more than when fifth-seeded New Mexico meets fourth-seeded Louisville in a West Regional game on Saturday with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line. It will be Williams’ responsibility to carve up the Cardinals’ array of pressure defenses and to prevent Louisville spark plug Peyton Siva from getting to the rim.

If Williams’ performance in New Mexico’s second-round NCAA tournament victory over Long Beach State on Thursday is any indication, he is up to the challenge. Williams sparked the Lobos by scoring 14 of his 16 points in the second half, sinking the go-ahead 3-pointer with 4:38 left and harassing 49ers star Casper Ware into a 5-of-19 shooting night.

“He’s the fastest player I’ve ever coached,” New Mexico coach Steve Alford said. “He doesn’t wear down. He’s one of those guys that can go and go forever. And then he’s got that ability that just very few players have: He can make big shots.”

It’s no surprise to anyone in Williams’ family to see him averaging 12.1 points and 4.2 assists as a sophomore because athletic success is the norm in his household.

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His mother was a standout volleyball and basketball player. Both his dad and grandfather played college football. And older sister Britni started at goalkeeper for four years at Arkansas, setting the school’s career record for shutouts.

Soccer actually was Williams’ childhood passion, but he eventually traded his cleats for high tops when it became clear he had the potential to go further in hoops. All the time Williams spent on the soccer pitch did not go to waste, though, because his vision and distribution skills as a midfielder translated well to the point guard position.

Even before the start of his sophomore season at Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Los Osos, Williams began receiving calls and texts from coaches at many of the elite programs on the West Coast. UCLA coach Ben Howland offered Williams a scholarship the summer after his freshman year, and Williams committed a few months later, calling it “undoubtedly” the right fit at the time.

“Whether that was a good decision or a bad decision, I really can’t say,” mother Debbie Williams said. “There was just a lot of pressure. There were calls coming daily, and calls and texts while he was at school, so he decided to make that early commitment and he stuck to that until right before his senior year.”

What forced Williams back onto the market was that UCLA’s interest in him cooled and the Bruins began pursuing other Class of 2010 point guards. Howland made a failed attempt to land Ray McCallum before settling on junior college standout Lazeric Jones.

“Most every kid has something to prove because some school didn’t recruit them or something happened in their life,” Williams said. “I was committed to them for a very long time, and it didn’t work out down the stretch. That was a very impactful moment in my life.”

One of the first schools that began recruiting him once UCLA faded from the picture was New Mexico, which was searching for an understudy to upperclassman Dairese Gary.

New Mexico’s staff couldn’t believe its good fortune that a guard with Williams’ blend of speed, strength and court vision still was available as a high school senior. Assistants Craig Neal and Wyking Jones attended Williams’ games and got to know him and his family, eventually securing a commitment from him in March of his senior year.

“We were very fortunate,” New Mexico assistant Ryan Miller said. “We think he can play anywhere in the country – Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12. He can play in any of those leagues. He’s a big-time player.”

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Williams forced his way into New Mexico’s starting lineup last season as a freshman, averaging 11.6 points and 4.0 assists and earning the Mountain West Conference’s freshman of the year award. His offensive numbers have plateaued a bit as a sophomore, but he has developed into a defensive stopper and taken greater leadership responsibility with Gary having graduated.

All the time Williams spends on basketball has hindered his chess game, but he still finds time to play sporadically. In fact, his parents bought him a computerized version earlier this month so he can play during road trips even though few of his teammates have any interest.

At some point, Williams will get his rubber match with Cornish. That will have to wait for the offseason, though, because neither wants a distraction with New Mexico bidding for a spot in the Sweet 16.

Said Williams, “Daniel’s too big a Lobos fan for that.”

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Updated Friday, Mar 16, 2012