January 8, 2010

High school teammates Stefanou, Williams emerge as super sophomores

And they said iPhones were supposed to be fast.

It’s December 2007 and Tom Williams is standing in the boys locker room at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, OH. His friend and teammate Steve Stefanou has just been accepted to the University of Chicago through its early action program, and now Williams is using Stefanou’s iPhone to check his application status, too.

With teammates and other athletes surrounding the pair in the locker room, AT&T is making Williams wait just a little bit longer.

“Everyone’s crowding around, and the iPhone’s taking a while,” Williams remembered, “and I was thinking ‘This is going to be an enormous buzzkill if I don’t get into this school.’”

But—phew—he gets in. High-fives go up all around and days later he and Stefanou commit to play basketball at the University of Chicago.

The locker room scene was a glimpse into the future of Chicago basketball, since the two have emerged as important contributors for the Maroons in just their second year. Starting all 11 games, Stefanou has led the team in scoring at 13 points per game to go with 7.4 rebounds ,while Williams has contributed 8.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest.

“They’re two of our most talented basketball players, and if they continue to progress as competitors and athletes, they’ll continue to make big contributions,” head coach Mike McGrath said of the frontcourt pair.

When the pair first took the court together, Wash U and the perils of the UAA were still years away. Instead, their competion was the 110 fellow freshmen who showed up for basketball tryouts. Now standing six-foot-eight and six-foot-seven, respectively, Stefanou and Williams remember being tall, but not quite the tallest, –good, but not quite the best, and hardly shoo-ins for the freshman squad at St. Xavier.

They did make the team, however, and eventually moved up to varsity during their junior year, and came off the bench to help the team to a state runner-up finish.

Playing AAU basketball together in the off-season, both explored possibilities for playing in college, and it was Stefanou who first drew Chicago’s attention. After a visit to Chicago, Stefanou tipped McGrath off to another possible recruit from just across the free-throw lane.

“It was a pretty unique experience,” McGrath said. “Our former assistant Jared Samples had seen them play AAU basketball, and Steve called us up one day and said ‘Hey, I have this friend who I think would be very interested in Chicago.’”

So, when Williams was accepted in the locker room that day, the quality of education, the opportunity to play college basketball, and the presence of a friend in Hyde Park made it an easy decision for both Stefanou and him.

“Once we knew Tom got in, we talked about it, and it just made sense,” Stefanou said.

Rooming together in May House last year, the two worked together to overcome the notoriously montonous Chicago social scene—“I heard all that ‘Where fun comes to die’ stuff, and I thought people were probably just saying that, but it ended up being pretty true,” said Stefanou—and worked to improve their games even as the Maroons struggled to an 0–12 record to start the season.

With Chicago floundering early on, Williams and Stefanou rode the bench for most of the season, each averaging about seven minutes per game and each waiting for a shot to make an impact on the court.

“It was frustrating watching the team and not being able to help,” Williams said. “But the other guys had some of the same experiences and we all kind of struggled together.”

McGrath viewed the losing season as a hurdle for the young Maroons, who saw Chicago fall from a UAA title in 2008 to fifth place in 2009.

“The biggest key to learning is working hard. And it’s always easier to do that when you’re in a successful environment, and last year they weren’t in some ways,” McGrath said.

But with work in the off-season, Williams and Stefanou have demonstrated their versatility for the Maroons this year, spreading defenses with quality jumpshooting while using their size and quickness as tools under the basket.

With the conference season beginning Saturday, they are committed to bringing Chicago back to the UAA promised land.

“I think I speak for the team,” Stefanou said, “in saying that our goal and expectation is to be at or near the top of the conference.”