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Vols’ Grant Williams hungry for improvement

Tennessee v North Carolina

CHAPEL HILL, NC - DECEMBER 11: Grant Williams #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers attempts a shot over Isaiah Hicks #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Dean Smith Center on December 11, 2016 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee forward Grant Williams wasn’t quite satisfied with a freshman season in which he dramatically outperformed his recruiting ranking.

Williams, who wasn’t rated as one of the nation’s top 150 prospects in his signing class, topped the Volunteers in rebounds (5.9) and was his team’s second-leading scorer (12.6) last season.

But he couldn’t get Tennessee into the NCAA Tournament, as the Vols haven’t produced a winning season since their 2014 Sweet 16 appearance.

Tennessee’s absence from the NCAAs left him hungry for postseason success and apparently changed his appetite in other ways as well. The 6-foot-5 sophomore says he reduced carbohydrates from his diet and already notices a difference.

“I feel like I can move better,” Williams said. “I feel like I’m just running better. I look better. I feel in general I can jump a little higher and my body has adapted to the college game. When I came in, I was roly-poly man.”

Williams says he arrived on campus last summer weighing “257 (or) a little bit higher maybe” before he got down to the 232-234 range during the season. He’s working to reduce his body fat percentage as he attempts to sustain his energy on the floor and stay effective for longer stretches.

The change became apparent during his mother’s recent visit to campus.

Williams’ mom, Teresa Johnson, shopped for groceries and brought her son steak kabobs, pasta and Buffalo wings. Williams told her to take all those items back to her Houston home because he couldn’t eat them.

“He has committed to the program and has maintained it,” Johnson said. “No matter how we might want to get him into rice, gravy and potatoes, he says, ‘No, I can’t have that.’”

Williams inherited that discipline from each of his parents. His mother, a NASA engineer, taught her children to have a variety of interests.

When he wasn’t playing basketball, Williams was entering academic competitions or studying music. Williams says he used to play as many as nine instruments and remains proficient with the piano, violin and clarinet. He’s planning to expand his musical repertoire eventually.

“I want to learn how to play the guitar and I want to learn how to play the saxophone,” Williams said.

Williams considered Yale and Princeton as well as Richmond before signing with Tennessee out of Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Although Williams wasn’t a heralded recruit, Williams emerged as one of Tennessee’s top players in his freshman season.

His 61 blocked shots represented the second-highest single-season total in school history. His 402 points ranked sixth among all Tennessee freshmen ever.

He wanted more.

“I feel like I could have played better,” Williams said. “I feel there are a lot of things I missed out on. I could have played a lot harder at the beginning of the year, especially. I feel like every freshman has regrets.”

The next step is becoming more effective away from the basket. Williams believes he’s improved his ball-handling and has developed into a more consistent shooter. He’s working to show he can defend guards and wings on occasion.

His willingness to expand his game exemplifies the leadership skills Williams must utilize to boost a team whose only senior is Howard graduate transfer James Daniel III.

“He’s not acting like a freshman or a sophomore,” junior forward Kyle Alexander said. “He’s acting like a senior.”

Williams understands his improved versatility requires him to get in better shape. He won’t be able to defend quicker players if he’s still that self-described “roly-poly man” who arrived on campus last year.

That’s why he rejected some of his mother’s groceries as emphatically as he swatted away shots last season.

“The food looks good, but I just can’t do it,” Williams said. “I’ve got to stick to my diet.”