COLLEGE PARK -- Earl Hawkins watched with pride from press row. The Maryland Baltimore County coach was at Cole Field House earlier this week to scout Rider College. But you couldn't blame him for taking a long, soft, reflective look at Walt Williams as well.
It had been almost four years since Hawkins was in the same building, coaching Crossland High School and Williams to a state championship. At the time, Williams was a gangly, 6-foot-8, 175-pound senior forward with a funky, sidespin jumper and a flair for the dramatic.
It had been nearly a year since Hawkins had seen Williams, still 6-8 but filled out nicely to more than 200 pounds, lead Maryland past UMBC. Even in the past 11 months, Hawkins can see how his former player has grown, both in size and stature.
"He's come a long way," said Hawkins, his sense of joy not unlike that of a father watching his son develop. "I think the biggest difference is in his ability to handle the ball and make other people better.
"He's probably the most unselfish player I've coached. He could have scored any time he wanted to tonight [Williams had 25] but he didn't do that. Definitely, his ability to shoot has improved.
He's developed an all-around game."
Walt Williams is not the most talented player ever to wear a Maryland uniform. He doesn't play with the power of Len Bias or the determination of Buck Williams. He does not have the savvy of John Lucas or Tom McMillen.
But when the history of Maryland basketball is written, the player called "The Wizard" will be as important as any of them: In the program's darkest hour, Walt Williams ensured that the Terrapins would not fall into a hole, never to be heard from again.
Williams, now a senior, will not be measured only by points and rebounds and assists, or jaw-dropping dunks and no-look passes. What Williams gave Maryland was a chance to survive its two-year probation by the NCAA with hopefulness rather than hopelessness.
As Maryland coach Gary Williams said before the current season began: "If Walt had left after his sophomore year, I don't know where we would be right now. He gave us credibility. He allowed us to compete for the last two years."
It was evident last season, when the Terps survived the prolonged absence of their star point guard because of a broken leg to finish a respectable 16-12. It has been apparent this season, as Maryland has jumped out to a 7-1 start going into today's game against Rutgers (4-1) in the opening round of the Fiesta Bowl Classic in Tucson, Ariz.
Williams is playing the most consistent basketball of his career. He has scored 20 points or more in each of his past six games, and is averaging close to 24 for the season. He has given confidence to his teammates, most noticeably junior center Evers Burns.
After Burns spun and put the ball between his legs, going up strong to the basket against Rider, he kidded later, "I learned that from Walt." And, said reserve guard Cougar Downing, "Teams pay so much attention to stopping Walt that it makes our job so much easier."
The next month will be telling, both for the Terps and Williams. The competition will get better, with a possible matchup against sixth-ranked Arizona on Monday and a bear of an early ACC season schedule. The scrutiny of Williams, especially by pro scouts, will get more intense.
You can tell how serious a team's interest is when the scouts start asking about a player's personality. Is he a good kid? Is he close to his family? What do his teammates think of him? The reports on Williams are coming back favorable.
"The one word we keep hearing is 'loyal,' " a pro scout said recently. "And that's a word you don't hear often these days."
How many players of Williams' talent would have stuck around when their team went on probation for the last two years of their college careers, keeping them off television for one year and out of the NCAA tournament forever?
jTC Jerrod Mustaf didn't at Maryland when the sanctions were announced. Chris Mills and LeRon Ellis didn't at Kentucky the year before. Williams could have gone anywhere and played immediately: Georgia Tech, Georgetown, St. John's, Virginia and Nevada-Las Vegas wanted him.
"It's funny how things work out," Williams said last summer. "But they usually work out for the best."
Take last season, for instance. After a captivating performance in last year's ECAC Holiday Festival -- a combined 56 points on 21-of-32 shooting against Rutgers and South Carolina, along with 16 rebounds, 11 assists and seven steals -- Williams was considered a probable first-round NBA pick if he gave up his senior year.
But less than a month later, Williams was kicked in the leg accidentally by Duke's Brian Davis. X-rays showed a broken left fibula and Williams sat out the bulk of the season, returning for the last three games. The leg has healed completely, and Williams is considered a possible lottery pick because of his size and flexibility.