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Utah State basketball: Pooh Williams learns defense can be fun to play

LOGAN — When Pooh Williams arrived at Utah State, there was a player making all sorts of noise around campus with his hot shooting, big grin and crowd-pleasing game.

And Williams, who averaged more than 27 points per game as a senior at Federal Way High School in Washington, would have to wait for his turn to be a star for the Aggies — who host Wichita State tonight at 10 p.m. in an ESPN BracketBuster game.

What he discovered while waiting, however, that it wasn't his high-flying offense that would become his ticket to becoming a fan favorite in the Spectrum. Rather, it was a skillset he readily admits he didn't have when he first stepped foot on campus.

"In high school, my coach told me 'You can't play defense to save your life,' " Williams said.

Now, it's that defense that has on several occasions saved Utah State's game and, arguably, made him the most valuable player on a team poised to win a third consecutive WAC regular-season title.

While Jaycee Carroll had a lock on the shooting guard position at USU and became the all-time leading scorer in league history, Williams spent his first couple of years as an Aggie being asked to harass, pester and defend Carroll in practice.

Thus began the transformation from high school scoring machine to defensive specialist.

"Pooh is our best lock-down defender and he's been outstanding for us," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said of his 6-foot-3 junior. "He's come through so many times for us and just shut down guys when we've asked him to."

What Williams, whose first name is actually Earnest, has done has been remarkable.

Game after game, Williams has jumped at the opportunity to guard the best player on the opposing team. Sometimes that's been BYU's Jimmer Fredette (19 points, but just 5-of-15 shooting) or Nevada's Armon Johnson (10 points, 5-of-14 shooting) and other times it's been Idaho's Mac Hopson (7 points, 2-of-6 shooting) or Louisiana Tech's Kyle Gibson (14 points, 4-of-18 shooting).

Whoever it is and whatever the assignment, Williams relishes the task.

"I love to guard the best player on the other team," he said. "When we start scouting a team, I always ask to guard the best player they've got. When I get the assignment, it puts a smile on my face."

And a frown on those he plays against.

"That made me feel real good," Williams said of the 4-of-18 shooting Gibson had Wednesday night. "I like to keep them from getting their points, but if I see they missed a bunch of shots after the game, that lets me know I did my job even if they scored some points. So that's a challenge I always want."

Williams is a virtual lock to be named to the WAC's all-defensive team when it is announced after the season.

But his offense, after spending his first two seasons at USU as more of a role player, is nothing to disregard, either.

The explosive jumper and deceptively quick driver has seen his defense translate into a solid offense. No Aggie is dominating the stat sheet as they've done in past seasons. Instead, there are seven USU players capable of being the leading scorer on any given night.

The ever-smiling Williams is one of them — and Louisiana Tech found that out in the second half Wednesday night when Williams took over both ends of the floor during a hard-fought game.

Scoring 11 USU points in a row, Williams lifted the Aggies from a four-point, second-half deficit to a huge win.

"We went to Pooh a lot," Morrill said. "He got on a roll and scored a bunch of points in a row for us."

The statistics are one thing, the attitude and ever-growing leadership shown by Williams — currently averaging 9.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game — also has Morrill happy to have him around.

"The most pleasing thing to me about that is to see how much he has matured as a player and, I think, as a person," Morrill said. "Earlier in his career, if he would have had a tough first half, he wouldn't have been able to turn it around.

"He has grown a great deal," Morrill added. "I thought he had an outstanding game ... maybe his finest hour as an Aggie."

Williams, who suffered a stress fracture during preseason practices, was sorely missed when the season began.

The defensive stopper didn't play against Utah (Carlon Brown had 22 points) and saw only a few minutes against Northeastern (Matt Janning hit big shots down the stretch and had 14 points). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Aggies lost both of those games.

Tonight, Williams will probably draw the assignment of Toure' Murry or Clevin Hannah. Like USU, the Shockers have no designated go-to scorer, but have seven players averaging five or more points per game.

Making sure one of the talented wing players Wichita State will bring to the Spectrum doesn't go off will be Williams first priority.

"It's what I do now," he said. "Basketball is the game I love. Right now, I'm loving playing defense."

Aggies on the air

USU (21-6, 11-2 WAC) vs. Wichita St. (22-6, 11-5 MVC)

Smith Spectrum, Logan

Tonight, 10 p.m.

TV: ESPN2 Radio: 610 AM, 1230 AM, 95.9 FM

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