The stars on the other side of the bracket don't pose such questions. In a sport already lousy with Jason Williamses, not many niches are left for a ballplayer who carries the name. The guy with the Sacramento Kings has the punky-rebel-point-guard slot; the one who recently retired from the New Jersey Nets, the power forward who spells it Jayson, has the chronically-injured-laff-riot slot. Duke's Jason Williams is a departure from both. He's a stone-serious goody-goody—the former captain of his high school chess team, a onetime poetry-contest winner and an erstwhile altar boy who honors his girlfriend, Wagner College forward Noelle Carter, by inscribing her uniform number, 15, on his ankle tape. There's a measure of that earnestness in this tale about Jason as a second-grader in Plainfield, N.J.: He'd gotten in trouble with his mother, Althea, who told him to prepare for a spanking. He went upstairs and pulled on gloves, snow boots, two pairs of sweatpants, a ski suit, a parka and a hockey goalie's mask before waddling downstairs to tell Althea, "I'm ready."
She laughed so hard she couldn't whip him, and thus did Jason score the first of many successes attributable to resolve and careful preparation. After his first game as a Blue Devils guard, an overtime loss to Stanford in November 1999 in which he shot 3 for 15 and committed six turnovers, he pulled out a black notebook in which he makes his to-do lists. "What do you have to do tomorrow?" he remembers writing. "You have to play better tomorrow!"
His progress since is chronicled by various entries in that journal. Watching last season's NCAA final on TV, he wrote, "I'm bored with myself, and [the championship game] is where I want to be next year. It's time to get to work." He dropped 10 pounds and became the top scorer last summer for USA Basketball's under-20 team, which acquitted itself well against the NBAers on the U.S. Olympic squad. All year long skeptics have doubted Duke's inside game. In fact, the Blue Devils have a powerful one, and it consists of Williams driving and rising to the basket. That, in turn, holds the key to Williams's outside game: As a result of his quicker cornering ability, defenders must now play a step off him, so he has improved his three-point shooting percentage from 35.4% a year ago to 44.6%.
During a stretch early in the second half of Duke's 76-63 East Regional semifinal defeat of UCLA on Thursday, after the Bruins had pulled to within three, Williams left them grasping and gasping. In eight minutes he scored all of the Blue Devils' next 19 points, a streak that ended only when he chose to pass to teammate Shane Battier for a layup. Williams finished with a career-high-tying 34 points. Two days later, in the regional final against Southern Cal, he added 28 points as Duke won 79-69. "You never know how many chances you'll get to play for a Final Four," Williams had written in his journal before the USC game. "Show everybody what you can do. It's now or never."
That was more or less the credo last week of another Williams, Terrapins coach Gary. Eighty-seven schools have been in at least one Final Four since the NCAA began its tournament in 1939, but never Maryland. So after the Terps quailed through an 83-80 defeat of George Mason in the first round, Williams delivered a 25-minute philippic. George Evans, the Patriots' 30-year-old Gulf War vet forward, had gulled Maryland's Lonny Baxter into foul trouble and limited him to two points. "If you all want to go to the Final Four, you've got to produce," Williams told Baxter. "I'm putting all the weight on you and Terence [Morris, the senior forward who had scored only four points]."
Williams might have used the word weight unthinkingly. "We're always teasing him," says Terps forward Byron Mouton of Baxter. "Say we're missing something. Like, Where's the camcorder? Where's the bag with the shoes? It's always, 'Lonny ate it!' " Yet, just as Duke's Williams credits weight loss for his improved play, so does Baxter, who has dropped 12 pounds since a 72-62 loss at Georgia Tech on Feb. 6, in which he scored three points and fouled out. "I've just been eating grilled chicken," says Baxter, a junior center who goes 6'7" and, now, 255 pounds. "No hamburgers, no fried food. I feel a lot quicker, more mobile."
Last Thursday Baxter sprang for 26 points and 14 rebounds in Maryland's 76-66 victory over Georgetown in a West Regional semifinal. In Saturday's final, a 87-73 defeat of Stanford, he alternately bulled and spun his way to 24 points and six rebounds while helping limit the Cardinal's 6'11" and 7-foot Collins twins, Jarron and Jason, to a total of seven rebounds. "Last night all he had was two cookies," Mouton said later. "I think it made him light on his feet."
Baxter gave up four and five inches to such ACC big men as North Carolina's Brendan Haywood and Georgia Tech's Alvin Jones, so he has had to be resourceful to compensate. "Because he's wide and strong, Lonny sort of leans and initiates some contact first so he can create space," says Maryland assistant coach Billy Hahn. Then he might shoot a turnaround, or a jump hook, or an up-and-under—or simply take a drop step, square up and shoot. "The coaches tell me to turn and face, to use my moves," says Baxter. "They tell me I'm quicker than almost anybody in the country, so use that quickness." There's been a great deal more of that quickness since LB, whose initials are tattooed on his left biceps, began shedding those lbs.
The Final Four will be the fourth meeting of the season between the Terps and the Blue Devils, but it shouldn't provide a repeat of last year's forgettable national semi between two other conference brethren, Michigan State and Wisconsin, in which familiarity bred contemptible, gear-grinding play. "We're both up-tempo, and we're almost the same size at every position," says Mouton. "It has to be the best rivalry in the country this year."
Indeed, each Duke-Maryland game has been suffused with drama. The Blue Devils made up a 10-point deficit in the final 50 seconds of regulation on Jan. 27 and beat the Terps in overtime. A month later, on Senior Night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke lost center Carlos Boozer to a foot injury, and Maryland swept to a 91-80 victory that served as the centerpiece of its late-season resurrection, in which the Terps beat five ranked teams over six games. Then, in the breathless final 8.1 seconds of an ACC tournament semifinal, first Maryland guard Steve Blake tied the game with a three-pointer, and then the Blue Devils' Nate James won it with a tip-in—but only because Terps guard Juan Dixon's half-court shot at the horn glanced off the rim. "See you in the Final Four," Battier told Dixon as the two teams left the Georgia Dome three weeks ago.