ON SUNDAYevening, after top-seeded Connecticut beat Kentucky 87-83 to advance to theSweet 16, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun stood in a hallway inside Philadelphia'sWachovia Center and answered questions from a small group of reporters. Havingnarrowly survived the first two rounds, Calhoun was discussing UConn's chancesof making a deep run in the tournament.
"How criticalis Marcus Williams to this team?" one reporter asked.
"He's themost important player for us," Calhoun said. Then he paused. "And Ithink he may be the most important player in this tournament."
That's not just atypically myopic view from a coach. The Huskies arguably have more talent thanany other team in the field of 65 and were a popular pretournament choice towin it all, but for them to fulfill their immense promise, Williams, as pointguard, must make all the pieces work.
A short timebefore Calhoun's comments, the 6'3" junior had coolly demonstrated hisworth. 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 secondnational championship in three years. He finished the game with 20 points andeight assists. "He goes to the basket when he needs to, and he passes whenhe needs to," says Kentucky guard Ravi Moss. "He's the brain that keepsthem going."
Certainly hisleadership is unquestioned among the Huskies. When sophomore forward Rudy Gayfailed to put a hand in the face of Wildcats guard Patrick Sparks, allowingSparks to swish a three-pointer, Williams let Gay have it. "He's going totell us when we mess up," says junior big man Josh Boone, "but that'swhat a good point guard does."
Williams wasthird in the nation in assists a year ago, and his 8.5 average this seasonwould have led the country if he hadn't been suspended for UConn's first 11games. Last August he and redshirt freshman guard A.J. Price were arrested andcharged with four counts of third-degree larceny after attempting to selllaptop computers that had been stolen from UConn dorms. Williams was sentencedto 18 months of probation and ordered to perform 400 hours of communityservice. The university suspended him for the first semester and gave him anadditional 25 hours of community service. He was banished from the team andtold to move out of university housing.
"I was verystern with him, but I was also caring," Calhoun says of Williams. "Itold him I'd have his back the rest of his life, but right now I'm going tokick his ass."
Williams movedinto an off-campus apartment with his mother, Michele, who relocated from LosAngeles after his arrest to support her son. He maintained his regular courseload in school, though, and every night after class he went to the local highschool 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 theFranciscan Life Center, where he worked with the nuns pulling weeds, haulingfirewood and even tending the goats, chickens and rabbits.
Since his returnto action on Jan. 3, Williams has focused on regaining the trust of his coachesand teammates. The Huskies have had their ups and downs while adjusting tohaving him back (all three of their losses have come with Williams in thelineup), but it is clear that they play their best basketball when he is on topof his game. In its NCAA tournament opener against 16th-seeded Albany, UConntrailed by 12 with 11:34 remaining before Williams jump-started the team byhitting a three-pointer. He scored 10 more points the rest of the way as theHuskies won by 13.
"Coach hasbeen by my side through everything," says Williams. "He gave me asecond chance. The least I can do is give him a third championship."