SYRACUSE, N.Y. — North Carolina coaches and players get lively while discussing freshman forward Marvin Williams, challenging each other for top-cheerleader status.
Few freshmen have made a bigger difference at Chapel Hill, and players say they're better off for having been his teammate.
This season might have been their only chance.
Williams, who considered turning pro after high school, could be among the top three players selected in June's NBA draft, according to talent evaluators. Coach Roy Williams wonders whether the affable Atlantic Coast Conference freshman of the year will become a sophomore, but he's happy to have him in the NCAA tournament.
Top-seeded North Carolina (29-4) plays fifth-seeded Villanova (24-7) Friday in the semifinals of the Syracuse Regional at the Carrier Dome. Williams increased his efforts at the Charlotte, N.C., subregional, helping North Carolina win consecutive tournament games for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, and he's prepared to do more again if needed.
Although playing in the NBA is among Williams' dreams, he's living another.
"Being here at North Carolina was a big-time dream for me," Williams said. "Coming to college, playing for Coach Williams, March Madness ... these are things I wanted to experience. I'm having a blast."
The Tar Heels are pleased too.
Williams played a major role in North Carolina's first outright ACC championship since the 1992-93 season.
The sixth man, playing behind All-American center Sean May and forward Jawad Williams, he averaged 12.7 points and 6.6 rebounds in conference play. Overall, Williams is averaging 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds.
The Tar Heels were 14-2 in the ACC, finishing a game ahead of second-place Wake Forest.
In the last regular-season game, March 6 against archrival Duke, Williams converted a three-point play with 17 seconds left to cap an 11-0 game-closing run in a 75-73 title-clinching victory at the Dean E. Smith Center.
Williams provided a major boost off the bench as the Tar Heels improved from fifth, where they finished at 8-8 in 2003-04, to first in the ACC in successive seasons. He became North Carolina's sixth ACC rookie of the year, joining Sam Perkins (1981), Michael Jordan (1982), J.R. Reid (1987), Ed Cota (1997) and Joseph Forte (2000).
"Marvin has just been playing incredible all year long," All-American swingman Rashad McCants said. "Marvin is ... Marvin is just phenomenal to me."
At the Charlotte subregional, Williams solidified his position among the NBA's highest-rated college players.
He scored a career-high-tying 20 points in a 92-68 opening-round victory over 16th-seeded Oakland of Rochester, Mich., then scored 20 points and took a personal-best 15 rebounds in a 92-65 second-round victory over ninth-seeded Iowa State.
"Marvin Williams is blessed," guard Raymond Felton said. "He's one of a kind. He's just special."
Williams isn't a typical understudy, the Tar Heels said.
"A lot of people just don't understand how really good Marvin is," May said. "Yeah, he's playing behind me and Jawad, but he's coming off the bench and averaging 12 points and seven rebounds."
The 6-foot-9, 230-pound Williams, who turns 19 in June, plays inside at North Carolina but possesses the skills to become an NBA All-Star at the wing forward position, scouts said, because of his "off the chart" athleticism, good shooting touch and high basketball IQ.
Many in the NBA thought he would forgo college after he averaged 28.7 points, 15.5 rebounds, five blocked shots and five assists as a high school senior in Bremerton, Wash.
The lure of playing at Chapel Hill, however, was stronger than Williams' other hoops dream.
He had been a Tar Heel fan since childhood, and his father, Marvin, admires Coach Williams. Moreover, the younger Williams wanted to experience college life.
"Every high school player that goes pro misses that experience, and I didn't want to do that," he said.
"For some people, going to the NBA is what's best for them, and that's great for them if that's what they needed to do for themselves and their families. But coming to college was best for me, so the decision wasn't too hard."
And next season?
"I'm going to talk to Coach Williams about that," he said. "But right now, I'll most likely be back here next season."
Williams quickly made a good impression on the Tar Heel upperclassmen at summer school in June, Jawad Williams said.
"He asked me questions from the first day," he said. "He wanted to know the right way to do things, and that showed he was willing to learn and listen."
Although many expect Marvin Williams to soon make himself available for the NBA draft, Roy Williams said he was not so sure. He plans to discuss Williams' draft status with NBA executives before meeting with the player's family after the season.