FINISHING TOUCHES Williamson rebounds from nasty start, pushes Arkansas toward another title NCAA TOURNAMENT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Perhaps there will be triumph Monday night in the form of another NCAA championship, and another MVP award at the Final Four.

Or North Carolina could end it all tomorrow.

Whatever happens to Arkansas' Corliss Williamson this weekend, his season will end better than it began.

Williamson is the muscular junior forward whose low-post prowess made him the dominant player of last year's NCAA tournament. He has delivered a command performance in this year's tournament, and, in the process, erased some bitter memories of how this season began for the defending champions.

The day after Thanksgiving, Massachusetts forward Lou Roe gobbled up "The Big Nasty" in a 104-80 romp by the Minutemen. Roe had 34 points and 15 rebounds, Williamson 15 and seven. He had been embarrassed before a national television audience, but those watching didn't understand what Williamson endured between last year's NCAA final and his meeting with Roe.

"All you need to know is that, throughout last summer," Williamson said, "I didn't touch a weight."

Williamson's game is one of power and position, and he lost his edge when he broke his left, nonshooting wrist in the 1994 NCAA championship game against Duke, an injury that wasn't detected until a month later.

For the first time since he was in the fifth grade, he didn't play full-time in the summer. Williamson had been lifting weights since high school, but he wasn't able to hang out in the weight room.

Williamson sat at home last summer and got fat. There was a day in his honor in Russellville, Ark., and many Big Nasty Combo Platters at a family restaurant owned by cousins. All those bacon cheeseburgers, fries and sodas added 40 pounds to a 6-foot-7 frame that is at its best when he weighs 245.

"Even if I didn't have a cast on my hand, I was going to rest last summer," said Williamson, who withdrew from the U.S. Goodwill Games team, "but I wasn't able to develop my game at the pace I wanted. That hindered me a little early in the season, but I've been able to get back in the weight room and get my strength back."

Ask any of the four teams Arkansas has beaten in the NCAA tournament. Williamson made 56 percent of his shots during the season, but has improved to 60 percent in the tournament, where he's averaged 23 points and 9.5 rebounds. His numbers are slightly down from last year, but the double and triple teams he's faced are up.

"From the standpoint of playing against two or three men as opposed to one man, there's no question he's had a better year than he did last year," Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said.

Williamson, whose freshman season was slowed by a foot injury, also has coped with the off-court attention that comes with being the best player on the defending NCAA champs.

"This was a lot different, a lot harder, than last year," Williamson said. "Then, it was 'Who was Corliss?' I kind of snuck up on some people, especially coming back from an injury the year before."

Actually, Williamson has undergone scrutiny since a Little Rock television station did a segment on him -- when he was an eighth-grader.

The governor, Bill Clinton, attended some of his high school games. Four years ago, he blocked Jason Kidd to give Russellville High the championship in a prep tournament. When they were high school seniors, the only national player of the year awards that Kidd didn't win went to Williamson.

The bulk of his 1,695 career points and 633 rebounds have come the past two seasons, when Williamson was the obvious choice for Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference. LSU's Pete Maravich is the only man to win that award three times, but don't expect Williamson to join him.

Much of the speculation surrounding players leaving college early for the NBA draft has centered on sophomores Joe Smith, Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse. Williamson has not announced his intention, but he and Richardson speak as if it's decided that he'll leave after this season.

"A lot of things will go into that decision," Williamson said. "Coach Richardson's input and the way the season ends out will have a lot to do with it."

Some pro scouts wonder if he is big enough to be a premier power forward in the NBA. Williamson, who floated outside for two jump shots near the three-point stripe that doomed Virginia in the Midwest Regional final, acknowledges that he needs to improve his game away from the basket.

"Last year, I think I shot better than I did this year from 15 feet," Williamson said. "The inactivity last summer cut into the work I was going to do on my jump shot. It's something I want to become great at."

That attitude has Arkansas on the brink of back-to-back titles, something that only Duke has accomplished in the past 21 years. Richardson spreads the compliments around on a team that includes six seniors and another junior ace in Scotty Thurman, but Williamson is the one player Arkansas can't replace.

He's the focal point of the offense when the Razorbacks fall behind and spread the floor, the one who pounds teammates in the chest, writes motivational quotes on his shoes and comes out of the weight room before games and hollers, "Let's go out there and tear these guys up."

Is he ever not The Big Nasty?

"I'll be introduced to a girl, and they'll be shocked that I'm so nice," Williamson said. "They think I'm so mean because I have a scowl on my face and I'm trying to be big, mean and nasty, but that's just the way I am on the court. Off the court, they call me The Big Easy."

Arkansas at a glance

Location: Fayetteville, Ark.

Enrollment: 14,000

Record: 31-6

Coach: Nolan Richardson, 251-81 in 10 seasons at Arkansas, 370-118 in 15 seasons overall

Ranking: No. 6

How they got here:

First round of the Midwest Regional: Beat Texas Southern, 79-78, in Austin, Texas. The second-seeded Razorbacks blew all but one point of a 17-point lead on the 15th-seeded Tigers of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, who they handled by 66 points last season. The Tigers' Randy Bolden missed a free throw with 6.1 seconds to go that would have forced overtime.

Second round: Beat Syracuse, 96-94, in overtime. Down 82-81, the Razorbacks were on the verge of elimination, but Alex Dillard tied up Lawrence Moten, who took a time out when the Orangemen didn't have any. Scotty Thurman made one of the two technical free throws to force overtime, when he had six points in the final 2:07.

Regional semifinal: Beat Memphis, 96-91, in overtime. The close calls continued for Arkansas, which trailed by 12 points with 7:30 to go in regulation. Memphis didn't score in the final 4:05, and Corey Beck's free throw with 11.5 seconds to go got the Razorbacks into overtime, where they quickly built a seven-point lead. Corliss Williamson had 27 points and 13 rebounds.

Regional final: Beat Virginia, 68-61. This was the Razorbacks easiest game of the regional, but even it didn't come easy, as the Cavaliers had a 35-29 lead with 15:34 to go. Arkansas, which made just 3 of its first 17 shots, used its defensive pressure to get its offense going. Arkansas made 17 of 21 free throws, limited Virginia to a season-low 33.9 percent shooting, and got another big game from Williamson, who had 21 points and nine rebounds.

Scoring leader: Corliss Williamson (19.9)

Rebounding leader: Corliss Williamson (7.5)

Assist leader: Corey Beck (5.3)

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