DURHAM, N.C -- Jason Williams doesn't want to put too much emphasis on tonight's game between top-ranked Duke and No. 3 Maryland at Cameron Indoor Stadium. When asked last night about the first meeting of the season with the Terrapins, Williams made it sound as if the Blue Devils were playing Clemson.
"It's just like any other game," Williams said after practice. "Of course, it's going to be intense and the fans are going to be crazy."
In reality, Williams and his teammates have been pointing to the renewal of what has become a top rivalry in college basketball since they were heading for Hawaii to play in the Maui Invitational back in November. Williams recalled looking at the date and thinking how far in the distance it seemed.
"And now it's here," said Williams. "It goes by fast. It seems like yesterday that I was checking into my freshman dorm."
While the Blue Devils have maintained their position among the sport's elite since Williams came here as a relatively obscure high school player, the junior point guard has watched his own status rise dramatically. He is considered the best college player in the country, and likely the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft.
That status was secured earlier this season, when Williams nearly single-handedly carried the Blue Devils back from certain defeat to an overtime victory over Kentucky in East Rutherford, N.J. In what amounted to a homecoming game for him, Williams scored a career-high 38 points, including 23 of his team's last 31.
"It feels good when people say you're the best, because of all the times you work extra hard and try to be the best," said Williams, who leads Duke with a 21.3-point average. "I'm just out there trying to have fun. As long as our team is the best in the end, I don't really care who people say was the best guy. If we win a national championship, everything else takes care of itself."
Williams likely would have been the top choice had he come out after last season, when, along with Shane Battier, he led the Blue Devils to the national championship. After talking things over with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski as well as his family back in New Jersey, Williams returned to school on one condition: He could graduate in three years.
That will happen and Williams, who said he pulled a 3.5 grade-point average last semester, will get his degree in sociology this spring. He also hopes that Duke gets its second back-to-back national championship in a decade. (The Blue Devils also won successive titles in 1991-92.)
Nearly two weeks ago, neither Williams nor the rest of his team played up to its lofty standards. In a 77-76 loss at Florida State, Williams missed six straight free throws in the final 5:40, including a couple of crucial shots in the waning moments. It cost Duke a shot at an unbeaten season. Williams had another perspective on the shocking defeat.
"We had a little bit of complacency set in," Williams said. "You take things for granted, you think things are always going to be given to you. The fire was out against Florida State, and somebody restarted it and threw a lot of gasoline on it. That's how it is right now."
Kryzyzewski certainly played his part, taking a page (or a chapter) out of former mentor Bob Knight's book of bringing high-ranked teams back to reality. Krzyzewski removed the players' chairs from the locker room, as well as their nameplates on their dressing stalls and the pictures above them.
"Anytime you're stripped of what you have, you want to fight back," Williams said.
The Blue Devils responded with easy victories over Georgia Tech and N.C. State, and Williams has become a more complete player in the process. He had a season-high 11 assists in the victory over the Wolfpack, and said he has concentrated as much at the defensive end as he did on offense.
"I'm trying to add parts to my game. I'm trying to get in the lane more and create, not just for myself," Williams said. "As we get deeper and deeper into the season, a lot more teams are crashing on me and always know where I am and follow me every second on the court."
If there have been any doubts about Williams among pro scouts, it's defensively. Aware of what's being said, Williams is trying to make more of an effort to shut down the other team's top scorer as much as they try to stop him. Tonight it will likely mean guarding Maryland senior Juan Dixon.
"Defensively I've really grown up a lot," he said. "It's a trait of my game that's never really been that strong. I'm getting in better shape. It's different when you're not playing as much defense and you sort of need your legs to score. I'm really trying to develop that. I know Juan is going to give us a really good challenge, and I look forward to playing him."