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Smooth operator

The success of the Virginia men's basketball team this season has brought many Cavalier players into the limelight. The freshman trio of Travis Watson, Roger Mason Jr. and Majestic Mapp has garnered much of the attention. Junior point guard Donald Hand has led the Cavs in scoring, and sophomore swingman Adam Hall has emerged as the team's defensive stopper.

Yet one player often seems to get lost in the mix: Chris Williams. The man with an unassuming name possesses an equally unassuming game. Williams, the reigning ACC Rookie of the Year, is putting up another solid season, filling the box score in every statistical category.

He played a monster role in the Virginia win Sunday at North Carolina with 16 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists - three shy of a triple-double. The Cavs (18-8, 8-5 ACC) grabbed their first win in the 14-year-old Dean Smith Center and completed their first regular-season sweep of North Carolina since 1981, seven months after Williams was born.

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  • The man nicknamed "Big Smooth" by the media also has been dubbed a "silent assassin" by Virginia Coach Pete Gillen. Williams methodically finishes off his opponents with jump shots or by driving to the hole and finishing with a layup rather than throwing down an authoritative slam dunk.

    "My game is unassuming," Williams agreed. "If you see the game, you don't notice it, but on the stat sheet, you see it's a big game. That's the way I want it to be: unassuming."

    While Williams may not lead the Cavaliers in SportsCenter highlights, he ranks first in minutes and field goal percentage and is tied for the team lead in steals. Williams is second on Virginia in scoring, rebounding and blocks and third in assists.

    Yet his season started off shakily, causing some observers to wonder what was wrong with the Birmingham, Ala., native.

    In late December he broke out with a handful of big games and now has upped his per-game averages to 15 points and six rebounds. Williams led the Cavs to two of their best performances of the season.

    Coming into ACC play, skeptics wondered whether Virginia had improved from last year after swallowing early-season road losses against South Carolina, Minnesota and St. John's. But the Cavaliers dashed those worries in their Conference opener, almost snapping Duke's then-23-game ACC win streak by taking the Devils to overtime before succumbing 109-100 in front of a national television audience. Led by Williams' 27 points, the Cavaliers served notice that they again were a team to watch in the ACC. Williams also paced Virginia with 24 points in a crucial 87-85 win against then-No. 21 North Carolina Jan. 18.

    "He's a terrific young player," Mason said of Williams. "His best quality is that he leads by example. He's not one of these loud guys. He's not a 'rah-rah' guy, but he gets the job done, and he shows us all how to do it: Play hard and be aggressive. Coming in here, I looked up to him a lot. He showed me a lot, like how to play on the road."

    Williams not only comes up large in the biggest games, he also often plays out of position at power forward for the vertically-challenged Cavs. Though a small forward by trade, Williams has had to guard opponents like Georgia Tech seven-footer Jason Collier and Carolina power forward Kris Lang. Williams uses his quickness to get past lumbering defenders.

    "I'll do what's best for the team, which is for me to guard the bigger guys and for the bigger guys to guard me, which creates an advantage for us," Williams said.

    Coming into last season as an unheralded recruit, Williams was thrown into the fire and he responded admirably with a 20-point performance against Virginia Commonwealth in his first collegiate game. Before last season, while many predicted greatness for an ACC freshman class that included such names as Lang and Duke guard Corey Maggette, nobody mentioned Chris Williams.

    "I wasn't surprised," Williams said. "I'm just a confident person. When it came, it was just like high school. It just came to me."

    Over the summer, Williams, along with former roommate Hall, honed his skills on the USA Basketball Men's Junior World Championship Team. Williams started all eight of the team's games, tying for third on the team in scoring. The squad competed in Portugal during the summer and compiled a 7-1 record, losing in the finals to Spain.

    "This summer helped me a lot," Williams said. "I got to play with a lot of great players like [DePaul's] Quentin Richardson, [Cincinnati's] Steve Logan and [Missouri's] Keyon Dooling. They are real good players and for me to be out there playing with them gave me a lot of confidence."

    Williams will need that confidence to lead the young Virginia team down the road toward a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

    "He's definitely taken a leadership role," Mason said. "Last year, he played real well, and we all look up to him, even if he is only a second year"