MHERST - Game days are the toughest for Eric Williams.
While his teammates are putting on sneakers, shorts and their game faces, Williams finds a shirt and tie and tries to find a smile.
Williams, a transfer from Syracuse, is nearing the end of his NCAA-mandated year of exile, before joining the University of Massachusetts squad next year. The light at the end of the tunnel is very visible, but not playing in games hasn't been easy.
In UMass' home opener against Marshall, Williams' emotions got the best of him as he was watching his team warm up.
"I didn't really cry, but tears were coming down my face," Williams said. "I just wanted to play so bad."
Transfers Dale Menendez and Eric Williams (left to right) can only sit and watch as they wait for their chance to play.
Away games can be even tougher, because Williams is often stuck by himself while his teammates are on the road. He's driven himself to close games just to stay attached. But when the game takes place out of driving distance, Williams is left behind. With no ESPN or Fox Sports New England in the dorms Williams has to either go to a friend's off campus apartment with cable or walk from his dorm to Rafters to see the game.
Williams has had to walk the difficult line of wanting his team to win and extend the season, while wanting next year to arrive as quickly as possible. He's compromised by wanting his team to win, but he wants it to go by fast.
"I want the guys to win and I want us to be successful, but I can't wait until next season," Williams said. "We might go to Italy in August and I'd be able to play then. So I'm looking forward to that."
Watching games this year, Williams thinks he could have helped.
"It's been tough. I want to play so badly," Williams said. "It's hard in a game like Temple where I know I could be helping them out there. I'm not saying we would have won, but I could have done some things."
The 6-foot-8 power forward tries to channel that energy into practice, where he is learning the system and trying to make current power forward Chris Kirkland better.
"It definitely helps. He steps out a little bit and posts as well. I think it helps me out a lot," Kirkland said. "He goes to the boards a lot so I always have to box him out. Eric will be a good player. He has nice touch. He works hard."
With Kirkland being comparitively undersized, practicing with Williams gives him a taste of what he gets in games.
"He beats Chris half to death in practice," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "I told Chris, 'This is great for you because this is what is going to happen to you in a game.' I thinks he makes Chris better."
Kirkland will graduate after this season, leaving Williams to compete for the starting power forward job with any recruit the Minutemen might bring in. Flint has been pleased with Williams' progress away from game action.
"I've seen him really improve from the first day of practice until now," Flint said. "What he can do is rebound the ball. We play well defensively, but if you can't rebound the ball, you kill yourself. He can rebound the ball and that will really help us. He just wants to play so bad. He's chomping at the bit to go out and show people he can play."
Williams did play at Syracuse, starting seven games while averaging 5.6 points and 3.4 rebounds. The Orangemen were 6-1 with him in the starting lineup, but his minutes were sporadic down the stretch. Williams, who expresses no ill will toward his former team, decided to make a change. Still he's followed Syracuse's season and still roots for them.
"I still keep up with those guys," Williams said. "I hope they win the national championship if we don't."
Flint, who recruited Williams out of high school, said he's had several players from other schools approach him about transferring, but he's been picky about who he'll take on.
"I really liked him as a kid," Flint said. "I had a feeling he was coming back. I thought this was the right place for him. I thought he could have success here."
The chance to do just that is coming soon and Williams knows it.
"After this one the next home game we have, I'll get to play," Williams said, prior to UMass' game with George Washington. "Just one more to go."