Sunday, November 14, 1999

Xavier needs pre-injury Williams




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If Darnell Williams is to have the last laugh, he needs to find his first step.

        To succeed as a basketball “slasher,” a man must switch gears as quickly as Freddy Krueger switched blades. He must explode off his mark like a drag racer late for dinner. He must move on instinct and without introspection, without concern for injury, without a second thought about scalpels and sutures.

        He must play the way Darnell Williams did before he tore up his right knee.

        Williams was a superlative slasher when he last played for Xavier in the spring of 1998 — averaging 17.3 points per game on 56 percent shooting — but his game has grown more sluggish since he shredded an anterior cruciate ligament on a summer tour of Italy. Sixteen months after the injury, the Musketeer guard is a slasher in slow motion, deliberate when he should be decisive.

        It is a testament to his talent that Williams has enough game to compensate for a comparative lack of quickness. But if the Musketeers are to make much of a mark on this college basketball season, their most veteran player must locate the step he lost last year in Verona.

        “He's not close to where he was at the end of his junior season,” XU coach Skip Prosser said Saturday afternoon at Cincinnati Gardens. “Wednesday, he was glacial in some of his movements toward the basket. Today, he was more aggressive.”

        The Musketeers defeated the dribbling missionaries from Athletes In Action, 91-67, and Williams led all scorers with 22 points. Yet a cursory glance at the stat sheet showed that five of his seven field goals were 3-point shots, and closer inspection revealed little of the old Darnell Williams' burst.

        “I feel like it's there,” Williams said, sipping on a grape soda at courtside. “We didn't get out on the (fast) break today. When we do, the other guys are not going to have to wait for me.”

        According to the doctors, Williams' surgically repaired anterior cruciate ligament is again sound. The patient's movements, however, would suggest he is still not convinced.

        In Xavier's two exhibition games, Williams has rarely attempted to break down opponents off the dribble, and he hasn't been penetrating with his accustomed panache. When he gets the ball on the perimeter, Williams resembles a man trying to decide how hard to push a rattling engine.

        “I don't think it's a trepidation based on fear,” Prosser said. “I think it's a trepidation based on mistrust. He doesn't really trust that his knee is going to hold up.”

        Williams says he sees the game better now after studying it from the sideline last season; that he has learned to anticipate plays before they unfold. Prosser, meanwhile, fears Williams has become too patient; that he is afflicted with “paralysis by analysis;” and that this places Xavier's transition game at risk of torpor.

Fine line on court
        There's a fine line on the basketball floor between being careful and being lethargic. Xavier's athleticism and lack of size compels Prosser to play an up-tempo game, to press on defense and push the ball up the floor on offense. It is a style of play not conducive to contemplation.

        “I appreciate that he's trying to figure things out,” Prosser said. “But I wish he'd figure it out at a little faster pace.”

        When Williams is making his 3-point shots, as he did Saturday, the quality of his slashing is almost immaterial. The trouble is that 3-point shooting tends to be streaky. Speed, by contrast, never slumps.

        To that end, Williams performs daily drills designed to force him to drive to the basket: to “Get it,” Prosser said, “and explode.” His progress has been plain, but his time is short. Xavier's regular season starts next Saturday against Maryland-Eastern Shore, followed by the elite competition of the Great Alaska Shootout.

        “I'm real close,” Darnell Williams said. “It just takes time.”

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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