That’s true, born and raised in Texas, then via a college prep school in Utah for two years. But St. Paul is part of his ancestral, and therefore, basketball DNA.
Given the blossoming amount of talent within Minnesota, keeping homegrown players has long been a theme in head coach Richard Pitino’s eight-year tenure. Tre’ can be considered a homecoming.
His mother, Kelly, grew up on St. Paul’s East Side, where she fell in love with basketball. But with few games available against girls in the 1980s, she played against boys at the nearby YMCA or rec centers. At Harding High School, the 6-foot-1 post was on Class 2A state tournament teams alongside stars Shannon Loeblein and Cara Pearson in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
She stopped playing once she attended the U, but her dirty-work-first style rubbed off on two of her eldest children: Tre’ and Jade, a senior center at Duke. Their mother’s old-school basketball stories sank in.
“It just made me admire my mom,” Jade said. “… That definitely inspired me to not be afraid to play against anybody.”
“Major influence,” Tre’ added, “She was a gritty, hard-nosed player. … She liked banging (in the post).”
It’s not just her kids saying those things, either. Stillwater girls basketball coach Willie Taylor, an assistant at Harding in that era, said, “She swatted shots like you wouldn’t believe.”
Tre’ has had to keep the faith across his two seasons at Minnesota, which enters Saturday’s game against No. 7 Michigan at Williams Arena ranked No. 23. The former four-star recruit has come off the bench in 38 of 43 games played. He’s averaging 3.7 points, 2.0 rebounds and 12 minutes this season.
Earlier this season, Pitino credited three bench players — Tre’, Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Isaiah Ihnen — with giving the Gophers “unbelievable selfless energy” in a comeback win over Boston College. Afterward, Tre’ has shared he has had “mental struggles” in realigning his expectations to meet the realities of playing major college basketball.
“I was hoping I would carry the role I had in high school, which is not realistic,” he said in an interview with the Pioneer Press. “As a kid, you know that you have to mature and experience college. … I just think (that was) coming in young-minded and immature, but at the same time having high hopes for myself and just being extra critical of myself.”
Gophers all-Big Ten guard Marcus Carr said Friday Williams has been playing smarter and harder this season, and Carr is excited to see where that growth can take Tre’. His full name is Marvin Williams III, and his father, Marvin Williams Jr., was a three-sport athlete at Princeton. A 6-foot-2 guard who could jump out of the gym and crossed over to track and field and football teams.
Both Marvin and Kelly have been in their son’s ear, and Tre’ knows how highly his parents think of him. “They always knew that I would play college ball; they have been coaching me all the way through.”
Marvin’s origins are in Philadelphia, before moving to Dallas, where he met Kelly when she relocated for a job there in 1998. Over the past year, his message to Tre’ has been, “Don’t forget the type of player you are. Don’t forget what got you here. You are here for a reason. Stay confident. Stay the course.”
Pitino consistently tells players that want bigger roles that they need to focus on getting better each day and doing things that help Minnesota. One thing Tre’ has focused on is being a good teammate. When starting wing Both Gach was struggling against Illinois in the Big Ten opener in mid-December, he came to the bench during a timeout. Tre’ met him, wrapped him in a hug and spoke in his ear.
“That’s just a brother you love,” Gach said. “He’s just trying to look out for me and trying to get me going.”
Williams has tried to forget about individual stats and focus on how he can “collaborate” for wins. “A mindset of being selfless,” he explained. “When the program is going in the right direction, you are going in the right direction.”
Given their parents’ history in the game, Tre’ and Jade were pretty much destined to play hoops.
Growing up, the family would make the 17-hour drive from Dallas to northern Minnesota to stay at Kelly’s family cabin. They routinely made the trips over the Fourth of July holidays and have memories of fishing, jumping off the neighbor’s over-water trampoline, barbecues and potato-sack races.
And, of course, hoops. Their grandparents’ land in northern Minnesota had a concrete slab and a metal hoop without a net. They played with a cheap, plastic ball. “It wasn’t a really good hoop, but we would still have our iconic competitions,” Jade shared. “This was where our competitiveness came from.”
Jade and Tre’ can look each other in the eye, both roughly 6-foot-5, and their pick-up games —either one-on-one or in “21” — were pretty even, per Jade. Home court was on their driveway in Dallas. “Me and Tre’ have been bumping heads when it comes to ’21’ forever,” she said. “He would win the majority, but I still have some W’s under my belt. I will gladly be proud of those. … I always give him a run for his money.”
Out of The Colony, Texas, Jade was a McDonald’s All-American and picked the Blue Devils among many suitors. She has been a collegiate starter averaging nearly 30 minutes a game and was named to watch lists for the Lisa Leslie Award going to the nation’s top center.
“I honestly think the college game is way too individualistic,” she said. “Everybody wants to talk to the person with the 30 (points) and only that person, but basketball is a team sport. I feel like it’s not always about points, but sadly that is what everyone is focused on. The main part of basketball, the beauty of basketball is going out there with five people and kicking someone’s (butt).”
The Williamses have two younger siblings, sister Rayna (14) and brother Lance (12). Kelly, a diehard fan who was watching the Purdue-Indiana men’s game on Thursday night, has a tough-love approach that rubs off on her kids.
“I think it’s a different situation with my kids because of the fact that I look at other parents in the audience and … and Jimmy gets one point and they go to Dairy Queen,” she said. “They get a sundae and it’s great. For me and my husband, we are a lot harder on our kids. We are like, ‘OK. It’s great that you got five rebounds, but you’re 6-5. What’s going on here?”
The Duke women’s program shut down their season because of COVID-19 in late December, but Jade plans to use the bonus NCAA eligibility to apply for grad school and looks to be on the team next season. She is a bit older and wiser than Tre’, but envies the family connections he has in Minnesota. Their grandmother will travel from St. Paul to Dinkytown with homemade food, including their favorite, shrimp Alfredo.
“She cooks him food and brings it to him!” Jade said last month from Durham, N.C. “I have to make my own food. This is what adulting is like for him?”
When Tre’ was sorting through college options, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Purdue among them, Kelly mentioned how having family nearby could be a boost. Their aunts and uncles, cousins and family friends are nearby. It also helped ease Kelly’s maternal instinct to be there for her son when she’s far away in Texas.
It has helped Tre’, too. “To have family and close friends here has definitely helped me out,” he said. “Made it easier for me.”
When Tre’ goes to the free-throw line against Wolverines on Saturday, people will know he’s from Minnesota, as well.