"That's why I worked out more than I ever have before to get ready for this year ... You'll see the results of those workouts on the court this year. I think I'll shoot better..."
-- Jawad Williams' "In His Own Words" entry in North Carolina's 2004-05 Media Guide
How North Carolina fares against Maryland on Saturday likely will depend on whether Jawad Williams continues to work his midseason magic. Williams is shooting an astonishing 65.9 percent from the field this season, more than 20 percentage points better than he did in his junior season, in which a broken nose and concussion might have affected his shooting touch.
Some might point to North Carolina's soft non-conference opponents as the reason for his success, but the numbers show that he has fared very well against the tougher competition.
Stats for 6 games: Tennessee, Iowa, USC, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia Tech
The numbers also show that historically, Williams is a totally different player against the Terrapins when he's playing at home, as opposed to on the road, as he's gotten better shots and a friendlier whistle in Chapel Hill.
Rocking the Rim
Gerry McNamara's scoring numbers might have dipped slightly this season, but that doesn't mean he has been any less valuable. One thing that McNamara appears to have worked on recently is his passing.
After Wednesday's 19 points and five assists against St. John's, McNamara now has 30 assists in his past four games. Making that element of his game better (his assist/turnover ratio is significantly better, even after having five turnovers against St. John's), should eventually pay the kind of dividends for McNamara, who is shooting only 38.6 percent and 34 percent from 3-point range, that will be beneficial to the team's pursuit of a national title.
Rivalry note of the week
Mississippi State has won six straight games against archrival Ole Miss, but the Bulldogs have had to earn those victories. Five of the six games have been decided by nine points or fewer, and three were decided by four or fewer points.
The recent telling stat in the rivalry is that free throw shooting might determine the result. Mississippi State has made 36 more free throws than Ole Miss has attempted over those six games and shot a much better percentage.
In the bonus
Even in this day in which anyone and everyone declares for the NBA Draft, there are very few college basketball teams whose starting lineups have no seniors.
Glance at the Top 25 and only Connecticut and Maryland are without at least one significant senior contributor. Work your way down to the mid-majors and the number of seniors in each lineup increases.
That's what makes Bucknell, coming off its upset of No. 7 Pittsburgh on Jan. 2, such a pleasant surprise. The Bison start three sophomores and two juniors on a team that went 14-15 last season, but they head into the Patriot League season with a 9-4 mark (its best since 1992-93) and six straight wins. There is only one senior on the roster, 6-foot-8 forward Chris Niesz, who ranks eighth on the team with 2.5 ppg.
Bucknell is one of the three oldest men's basketball programs in the nation (along with Yale and Minnesota), but it has been a long time since this squad was something to talk about.
"We've become a good club," said head coach Pat Flannery, now in his 11th season at his alma mater. "We have size, our kids can shoot, and we're very good defensively. We give ourselves a chance to win."
Flannery's assessment is right on. The Bison feature 6-11 center Chris McNaughton, an electrical engineering major from Germany with a 3.7 GPA, who is averaging 13.4 points per game on 59.8 percent shooting. They also shot over 50 percent from the floor in the victories against Pittsburgh and Saint Joseph's and are holding teams to 39.8 percent shooting for the season.
Bucknell had a strong finish last season, closing with eight wins in its past 11 games, but didn't really experience any sort of carryover until an overtime victory against Yale on Dec. 4. That started the win streak in which each game has been better than its predecessor, culminating with the Patriot League's first win against a Top-10 team, an appearance as the No. 1 play of the night on SportsCenter, and a flood of e-mails and phone calls to Flannery that, in one form or another, contained the word "unbelievable."
There was no intimidation factor of any kind, not even for a very young team in a gym in which the opponent was virtually unbeatable.
"You go into the holidays with confidence, and confidence is a funny thing," Flannery said. "We went to Pittsburgh and said 'let 'er rip!' We told our guys that if we played smart, we could stay with them. Next thing we know, we're up eight points at halftime. They made a run, but there was no panic from our guys."
Mark Simon is a researcher for ESPN's college basketball coverage and "Baseball Tonight."