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ON SUNDAY evening, after top-seeded Connecticut beat Kentucky 87-83 to advance to the Sweet 16, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun stood in a hallway inside Philadelphia's Wachovia Center and answered questions from a small group of reporters. Having narrowly survived the first two rounds, Calhoun was discussing UConn's chances of making a deep run in the tournament.
"How critical is Marcus Williams to this team?" one reporter asked.
"He's the most important player for us," Calhoun said. Then he paused. "And I think he may be the most important player in this tournament."
That's not just a typically myopic view from a coach. The Huskies arguably have more talent than any other team in the field of 65 and were a popular pretournament choice to win it all, but for them to fulfill their immense promise, Williams, as point guard, must make all the pieces work.
A short time before Calhoun's comments, the 6'3" junior had coolly demonstrated his worth. Inside the last 30 seconds of a nail-biter against the Wildcats, Williams sank four clutch free throws to keep alive UConn's bid for a second national championship in three years. He finished the game with 20 points and eight assists. "He goes to the basket when he needs to, and he passes when he needs to," says Kentucky guard Ravi Moss. "He's the brain that keeps them going."
Certainly his leadership is unquestioned among the Huskies. When sophomore forward Rudy Gay failed to put a hand in the face of Wildcats guard Patrick Sparks, allowing Sparks to swish a three-pointer, Williams let Gay have it. "He's going to tell us when we mess up," says junior big man Josh Boone, "but that's what a good point guard does."
Williams was third in the nation in assists a year ago, and his 8.5 average this season would have led the country if he hadn't been suspended for UConn's first 11 games. Last August he and redshirt freshman guard A.J. Price were arrested and charged with four counts of third-degree larceny after attempting to sell laptop computers that had been stolen from UConn dorms. Williams was sentenced to 18 months of probation and ordered to perform 400 hours of community service. The university suspended him for the first semester and gave him an additional 25 hours of community service. He was banished from the team and told to move out of university housing.
Williams moved into an off-campus apartment with his mother, Michele, who relocated from Los Angeles after his arrest to support her son. He maintained his regular course load in school, though, and every night after class he went to the local high school and worked on his shot for two hours. As part of his community service, he also spent three weekends in Meriden, Conn., at the rural campus of the Franciscan Life Center, where he worked with the nuns pulling weeds, hauling firewood and even tending the goats, chickens and rabbits.
Since his return to action on Jan. 3, Williams has focused on regaining the trust of his coaches and teammates. The Huskies have had their ups and downs while adjusting to having him back (all three of their losses have come with Williams in the lineup), but it is clear that they play their best basketball when he is on top of his game. In its NCAA tournament opener against 16th-seeded Albany, UConn trailed by 12 with 11:34 remaining before Williams jump-started the team by hitting a three-pointer. He scored 10 more points the rest of the way as the Huskies won by 13.