These days just sitting in the locker room with his Tennessee basketball teammates is a treat for Vols center Brian Williams. Preparing to play in the NCAA Tournament is like a little slice of heaven.
Williams and the No. 6 seed Vols open play tonight in the NCAA first round against No. 11 seed San Diego State in Providence after surviving a tumultuous season and a highly publicized incident involving illegal gun possession that threatened to completely derail them.
On New Year's Day, Williams and teammates Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins were arrested after the rental car they were riding in was stopped for speeding and discovered to contain two guns and a bag of marijuana in the vehicle.
It was 12 games into the season and the four had combined to average 32.2 points, 14.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists.
Smith was dismissed from the team. Goins and Tatum were reinstated Jan. 17. Williams rejoined the team Feb. 6, and his perspective on the game will never be the same.
"Some people take this basketball thing for granted," Williams said. "Not many people get this opportunity. … I was just as close to being a fan as I was a player, and that's in the back of my mind every day. Every day I wake up and every night I go to sleep, I thank God for the opportunity I have."
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl is well aware of how fortunate his Vols are. With four players suspended, Pearl was left to pick up the pieces with an undermanned squad. Their absence left the Vols with a rotation of six scholarship players and three walk-ons. During that time, their multiple wins included a victory over then-No. 1 Kansas.
"I look back at all the things we've gone through, and I admire their resiliency and the way they've grounded it out," Pearl said. "We won in a period of time in early January with six scholarship players. So there's been a lot of positives. I would certainly love to see some more consistency, but this has been a good year."
The Vols are ranked No. 15 and enter the tournament having won seven of their past nine games. The most recent was a 74-45 loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals.
Their survival is a testament to those who remained, and Pearl's ability to keep the team confident, senior Wayne Chism said. Although there were times of doubt.
"Through all the ups and downs we've had, sometimes you'd say no (it wouldn't work out) because a lot of players lost confidence," Chism said. "But at the same time we knew everybody was going to pick it up and play.
"The way we're doing right now, I'm glad everybody is together and we're going to stay together. It says our team is tough. Our team is really tough and we did a great job when we were down. I'm looking forward for all the guys to keep going."
For Williams, who worked out twice daily at 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. while he was suspended, it has been a life lesson as well as helping to improve his game. He has become an avid film watcher and said he understands the nuances of the game better than he ever has.
"The game is about confidence and knowing the game, knowing where to go to get open, knowing where to go to get a rebound," said Williams, a 3.0 student who is on track to graduate in four years. "And my confidence since I came back has skyrocketed.
"God wouldn't put you through stuff you can't handle. I think I handled it as best as possible. I got a second opportunity, and I'm blessed for that and I'm trying to take advantage of it. I'm a better, stronger person on and off the court from this situation."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]