Chaz Williams is a 5-foot-9 dynamo of a point guard who gave a verbal commitment to Hofstra as a high school sophomore. Halil Kanacevic is a 6-foot-8 power forward who specializes in the grunt work in the interior and who didn’t receive a scholarship offer from Hofstra until late in his senior season.
The differences between the two are obvious, but after impressive rookie seasons, so are the similarities. Playing with an intensity palpable from the stands and driven by their humble basketball upbringings, Williams and Kanacevic quickly proved ready for and not intimidated by Division I basketball as they emerged as core members of the Dutchmen.
Both players were named to the CAA All-Rookie team last night, only the third time since the conference expanded in 2001-02 that a school has had multiple All-Rookie members. Kanacevic led all freshmen in rebounding (7.6 per game) while Williams ranked second in scoring (9.8 per game).
“It’s been amazing,” Charles Jenkins said after a practice earlier this week. “For them to take the roles that they have on this team is big. They’ve both had stellar games this year where they led us to victory—the veterans didn’t play well and they came out and played well and got us a victory. It’s been very exciting to watch both of them grow as freshmen."
Tom Pecora has often said this season he was forced to rely more than expected on Williams and Kanacevic due to the unexpected absence of Brad Kelleher (thank you very much, Clearinghouse) and the early struggles of Miklos Szabo and Greg Washington. But it was also immediately clear he trusted the freshmen duo, each of whom played more than 30 minutes in the season opener at Kansas.
“Where I played [in high school], it was a small gym,” Kanacevic said Wednesday. “It was nothing compared to Kansas. That’s like a section of Kansas, my gym. It was great. Coach said ‘baptism by fire.’ It was a great experience, it helped me out a lot.”
“Playing against the number one team in the nation, playing in a place like that, it was a tremendous place to start,” Williams said. “Because now I look at it like ‘Hey, we played against two All-Americans. We should be [putting up] the same numbers we did then. Let’s go play.’”
Such passion has become a trademark for both players, who have an uncanny knack for flipping the switch just before the opening tip. During the introduction of starting lineups, Williams greets each player with an individual handshake, ending with a LeBron James-like exchange with Jenkins. But as the rest of his teammates stroll to center court, Williams walks to the basket nearest the Hofstra bench, gazes upward and performs the sign of the cross.
Then he goes out and mixes it up with players far bigger and heavier than him, appropriate actions for someone who has spoken often of how he feels he has something to prove every time he takes the court due to his height. Last week, Williams became tangled for a rebound in mid-air with Georgia State’s Ousman Krubally, who only had nine inches on Williams.
Kanacevic, meanwhile, said he remains relaxed all day long (“I could sleep the whole day before the game”) but sharpens his focus the moment the ball is tipped. He tied for fifth in the conference with five double-doubles and had perhaps his best game of the year in the upset of Northeastern 10 days ago, when he had 16 points and 11 rebounds while minimizing Huskies big men Manny Adako and Nkem Ojougboh.
Such performances are particularly impressive given how lightly recruited Kanacevic was out of Staten Island, which is the forgotten borough when it comes to city basketball. Kanacevic had some interest from low mid-majors before he led Curtis High School to the Class A championship—the first title ever won by a Staten Island school—last year. (Williams led his alma mater, Bishop Ford in Brooklyn, to its first state title as a junior)
Kanacevic admits he plays with a chip on his shoulder and expects perfection out of himself every time he takes the court. “Other than my family, basketball is basically the only thing I care about,” Kanacevic said with a laugh. “So if you lose a game or you make a bad play out there—coaches tell you forget about it, move on to the next play. It’s hard for me to forget about it. I still remember plays from my sophomore year, freshman year of high school. I just don’t like it. It drives me nuts, making mistakes.”
It hasn’t been a perfect season for either player, each of whom hit the freshman wall following the New Year. Kanacevic shot just 35 percent and didn’t record a single double-double over the seven games from Jan. 19 through Feb. 13.
He’s emerged from his funk as Williams has slumped. Williams is shooting just 26 percent (22-for-84) in his last eight games, a notable tailspin for someone who shot an almost unconscious 63 percent (26-for-41) from 3-point land over a 13-game span from Dec. 9 through Jan. 27. He was benched briefly by Pecora against Georgia State for taking a bad shot early in the first half.
Even as he has struggled, though, Williams has contributed in other areas. He tied a career high with 10 assists Saturday, has pulled down seven or more rebounds in four of his last six games and recorded more turnovers than assists just once in his last 13 games.
“I never felt tired at any point, I just wasn’t making shots,” Williams said. “I just felt like, OK, I guess this is the wall everybody talks about. Let me just get in the gym and make extra shots and get over this hump. Hopefully I get over it by this weekend.”
Despite their youth and the likelihood the Flying Dutchmen will be CAA contenders for the duration of their careers (unless of course Hofstra joins the A-10!), Kanacevic and Williams are both approaching the CAA Tournament with a sense of urgency.
“Like coach always says: ‘We’re not practicing to win, you’re practicing to win championships,’” Williams said. “That’s been coach’s motto all year, because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re all here for. Me and Halil are both trying to get Mikey Szabo and Cornelius Vines a championship.”
“We’ve just got to go with the mindset that no one is going to give us anything, we’ve got to take it,” Kanacevic said. “We’ll go in there with that approach, play hard, keep up what we’ve been doing and maybe [make a] little bit less mistakes. One and done situation—basically try to see [how] far we can go. Hopefully we win.”