- Associated Press - Friday, March 17, 2017

MILWAUKEE (AP) - JaCorey Williams’ drive to succeed at Middle Tennessee can be traced in part to a road trip to St. Louis.

As a transfer from Arkansas who redshirted last season, Williams was prevented by NCAA rules from traveling with his teammates for their first-round game last March in Missouri against Michigan State. So Williams drove in his own car and watched from the stands as the Blue Raiders stunned Michigan State as a No. 15 seed.

Now Williams is leading the way on the court for 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee as the school seeks a spot in the Sweet 16.

“I just wanted to show those guys that I bought into the program, that I was here to support no matter how far the drive was,” Williams said before practice Friday at the Bradley Center. Middle Tennessee (31-4) faces No. 4 seed Butler in an NCAA Tournament second-round game on Saturday .

“Now that we’re here it’s really a fairy tale story. I didn’t really imagine us being this good, but I knew we had a chance,” Williams said.

He’s a big reason for the Blue Raiders’ success. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 17.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for a team that stormed through Conference USA and won a school-record 31 games. Williams was named league player of the year.

“He’s very, very skilled, very, very versatile. He’s very consistent with his mid-range … and (can) get to the hoop and being physical,” Butler forward Andrew Chrabascz said.

The Bulldogs have received boosts, too, from transfers who chose to finish their college careers at the Big East school.

Avery Woodson, a graduate transfer from Memphis, scored 18 points and tied a career high with six 3-pointers in making his NCAA Tournament debut in a first-round win over Winthrop . Kethan Savage, who used to play at George Washington, averaged 10.5 points in Big East play and 8.1 points overall for the season.

Butler (24-8) is 6-3 since Savage and Woodson entered the starting lineup on Feb. 7 in a 68-65 win over Marquette. Woodson is averaging 11.4 points and shooting 48 percent from behind the arc in that stretch.

“It’s definitely been an adjustment. I think we’ve surprised a number of people with the amount of success we’ve had at Butler,” Savage said. “I think that’s a credit to our relationship off the floor.”

It sounds like the kind of relationship that Williams forged through road trips with his teammates at Middle Tennessee. He drove to St. Louis for the NCAAs with backup forward Brandon Walters, who at the time was also redshirting.

But Williams also drove himself to catch every other road game too in 2015-16, assistant coach Ronnie Hamilton said. The only interaction that he was allowed to have on the road was to practice with teammates. But after practice, Williams would go his own way, as if leaving a YMCA gym after a pick-up game.

Williams was caught by surprise when Middle Tennessee upset Michigan State last year, so much so that he and Walters had to scramble to find a hotel room at the last minute in order to watch the second-round game.

“I joked before every game ‘I drove all the way out here,” Williams recounted, “so you guys better win.’”

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More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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Follow Genaro Armas at: https://twitter.com/GArmasAP

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