HOT SHOT Aiming to tie ACC mark today, Williams fires up comfort zone

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK -- They have played box-and-ones, as well as double-teams. They have used smaller players and taller ones. Nothing has worked against Walt Williams the past three weeks, short of Williams getting a little weary or into foul trouble.

"I've never coached a player on a roll like this," Gary Williams said after the 6-foot-8 senior guard lighted up Florida State for 38 points and led Maryland to a 93-85 upset Wednesday night in Tallahassee. "That's the best I've seen."

The Williamses, player and coach, hope this roll continues today, when the Terrapins (9-10, 2-7) play host to No. 24 Georgia Tech (15-7, 3-5) in a 3:45 p.m. nationally televised Atlantic Coast Conference game at Cole Field House.

How hot is Williams?

Maybe the hottest player in the country.

"There are some nights when you feel like everything is going in," Williams said last week. "I've had that feeling for a while. It's a comfortable feeling."

Since moving from point guard to shooting guard Jan. 11, Williams has defined the position while redefining his NBA future. He also has come within a game of tying Len Chappell's 30-year-old ACC record of eight straight games of at least 30 points.

During the streak, which has come against league opponents, Williams has shot 81 of 135 from the field, 32 of 58 from three-point range. That means he's scoring more than 33 points a game on an average of just more than 19 shots. He is leading the ACC in scoring at 26.6 and is seventh in the nation.

"He could be the best player in the country right now," Clemson coach Cliff Ellis said recently.

"There's nothing he can't do," Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said Friday. "He can dribble. He can shoot. He can pass. He can rebound."

Consider how teams have tried to stop Williams the past four games:

* Jan. 22: Wake Forest countered Williams' height with two 6-8 forwards, Anthony Tucker and Chris King. No matter. Williams hit 15 of 21 shots, scoring a career-high 39. Only foul trouble prevented Williams from breaking Ernest Graham's school record of 44 and the Terps from pulling an upset.

"That was as fine a performance as I've seen in my years in coaching," Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said after the Demon Deacons pulled away to an 86-76 victory.

* Jan. 25: Clemson used a box-and-one, a strategy that had worked the previous week against Virginia's Bryant Stith. Williams scorched Andre Bovain and the Tigers for 31 points on 11-for-15 shooting, including five of seven three-pointers, as Maryland won its first ACC game, 84-71.

"He broke me down mentally," said Bovain, who had held Stith to a season-low 12 points.

* Jan. 29: Virginia used four different players on Williams, including Stith, 6-5, hoping to wear him out. It worked, but not before Williams had scored 33 and almost single-handedly led Maryland to victory. Williams tired down the stretch and fouled out in the final minute.

"If we didn't play great defense, Walt might have scored 40," said Cavaliers coach Jeff Jones after his team's 82-75 win in Charlottesville.

* Feb. 5: After watching Williams score 30 in a 91-83 overtime win Jan. 18 at Cole Field House, Florida State switched from playing him straight-up man-to-man to going with two players on him. What, Walt worry? He had 22 against the 23rd-ranked Seminoles in the first half, 38 for the night, as the Terps got their first ACC road win of the season.

"When a guy gets that kind of fire in his eyes, it's hard to stop him," said Florida State coach Pat Kennedy, who used a guard and a forward to shadow him. "No matter what we did, he was fantastic."

What will the Yellow Jackets do to slow Williams? Nothing tricky, for sure. Georgia Tech probably will start with Jon Barry, a 6-5 senior guard, and then bring in Bryan Hill, a 6-4 junior defensive specialist.

"Walt Williams is going to get his points," Tech center Matt Geiger said after the Yellow Jackets crushed Maryland, 92-67, and held Williams to 25 Jan. 5 in Atlanta. "The key is to make sure the other guys don't score."

How do you stop Williams?

"You don't," said Cremins.

As impressive as Williams has been, he has had help from his less-publicized teammates. Maryland probably has thrown more picks in the past month than in the past 10 years.

But Williams has taken advantage of the smallest opening, something he couldn't do when he played shooting guard and small forward during his first two seasons at Maryland.

"To do what he's done, you have to get screens and you have to learn how to use those screens," Gary Williams said Friday. "It seems he gets better at that every time out. The other guys have done a great job getting Walt the ball. A lot has to do with Walt's popularity. If you don't like a guy, you don't always see when he's open."

Said Walt Williams: "The fellows are getting me open, and Kevin [McLinton] is doing a great job getting me the ball. The defense is on me, so they [the screens] almost have to be perfect."

Williams was always a streak shooter as a point guard, but this recent string of games seems to have gone beyond just being hot. He has played his best defense this season while providing his best offense.

The combination of Williams' torrid shooting and a seemingly better work ethic has raised his stature among pro scouts. Those who were uncertain about Williams' future in the NBA as a point guard are re-evaluating him as a multi-position player.

"I don't think he was a definite lottery pick as a point guard," one NBA scout said last week. "But he's getting closer to being a sure thing because of what he's done lately. He's proven he can score."

He's also done it against some top-flight competition, compared with other big scorers around the country. Consider that among the nation's top 10 Division I scorers, only Williams and Southern Cal's Harold Miner play in what are considered higher-echelon leagues. And the Pac-10 never has been the last bastion of defense.

And Williams has done it unselfishly. During the streak, he's also averaged 2.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds.

"All the other parts of Walt's game have been there," said Gary Williams. "The biggest change is that he's going out to shoot the three. He's still a great passer. He's still great running the break. His defense has gotten a lot better. But the points are what everybody notices."

Today, the country will get to see what the ACC has witnessed the past three weeks: maybe the hottest player in the college game.

Thirtysomething

Walt Williams' streak of seven straight games of 30 points or more:

30 vs. North Carolina State (12 of 22 shooting, 4 of 10 threes)

32 vs. North Carolina (10 of 18 shooting, 4 of 6 threes)

30 vs. Florida State (10 of 19 shooting, 4 of 10 threes)

39 vs. Wake Forest (career-high) (15 of 21 shooting, 5 of 7 threes)

31 vs. Clemson (11 of 15 shooting, 6 of 9 threes)

33 vs. Virginia (12 of 22 shooting, 2 of 7 threes)

38 vs. Florida State (11 of 18 shooting, 7 of 9 threes)

Where he ranks

:.

Scoring averages through Friday's games:

1. Brett Roberts, Morehead State, 29.2

2. Steve Rogers, Alabama State, 27.7

3. Alphonso Ford, Mississippi Valley, 27.6

4. Harold Miner, Southern Cal, 26.9

5. Terrell Lowery, Loyola Marymount, 26.9 (not including the San Diego State game late Friday night)6. Vin Baker, Hartford, 26.7

7. Walt Williams, Maryland, 26.6

8. Randy Woods, La Salle, 26.5

9. Reggie Cunningham, Bethune-Cookman, 25.4

10. Joe Harvell, Mississippi, 25.2

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