Larry Watson is 6 feet 8, a center for Marshall University whose basketball life surely had prepared him for nearly everything except a man trying to jump over him to score. That is not quite what Buck Williams had in mind the other night in Cole Field House -- or even what he actually did.But he could have. He could have spread his legs a bit and sailed right over a 6-8 defender on as memorable a dunk as many witnesses had ever seen.

It awed some of his teammates, but not all of them. During reentry to the planet, Williams was fouled by the helpless Watson, and as Albert King offered a hand off the floor, he looked at him and said, one sky walker to another:

"Cute."

Fortunately for most of college basketball, Buck Williams stopped growing at 6-8. Had he not, the game might not be much fun. Certainly, it would be far less dramatic. As an undersized center, Williams has averaged nearly 12 rebounds per game for Maryland this year. If he were, say, four inches taller, he might get every missed shot in every game.

Williams and King challenge even the extraordinarily rigid laws to hoop gravity, yet they are stylistic opposites. King is a basketball Baryshnikov, a player you would pay serious money to watch. Buck is basic, a player you would seriously like to coach.

Williams' place in his sport is almost impossible to determine, although he does play in the shadow of someone shorter. King deserves every bit of the enormous praise he attracts. He would have been among the top five players drafted in the NBA last year. hBut Williams is more valuable to Maryland. If King is the Reggie-like straw that stirs the drink at Maryland, Williams is what makes it potent.

"We're small," Coach Lefty Driesell correctly says of a team expected -- possibly unrealistically --to be among the five best in the country at the end of the season. Few teams have won national championships with a front line that measures 6-6, and 6-8, and a lead guard with neither flair nor much of a jump shot. "Buck's the only one who makes us big.

"That's why I say we've gotta get some rebounding out of Albert and Ernest (Graham). Buck plays big, but he ain't big. But he's the best. I ain't seen anybody I'd trade for him."

Driesell told us doubters that almost exactly a year ago, after a depression loss to Georgetown Williams missed with a broken finger. As a sophomore, Williams was moving from power forward to an unfamiliar position. But Driesell predicted he would be the best center in the country.

"So far, he whipped up on all of 'em he played against," Driesell said after the Terrapins routed Marshall. "And he's really not a center. He's just a competitor."

What makes Driesell justifiably uneasy is that Williams' rebound average through 10 games was slightly higher than King's and Graham's combined. And the thread that connects most basketball champions, college and pro, is rebounding. Who wants the ball most. Who works hardest to get it.

"Here's what I like about Buck," Driesell adds."He's gotten a little bit better every year." As a freshman, Williams averaged 10 points and 10.8 rebounds. As a sophomore, he averaged 15.5 points and 10.1 rebounds. After last night's game against St. Joseph's, Williams was averaging 19.5 points and 11.7 rebounds.

And shooting 73 percent from the field. Of course, nobody makes three out of every four shots for an entire season. And Williams does not have exceptional touch beyond 10 feet. So he only takes the shots he can make and grabs more than enough offensive-rebound garbage to pad both his scoring average and field-goal percentage. In his last games, Williams has made 25 of his last 31 shots from the field.

Both Al McGuire and Driesell call Williams "a horse." In Lefty's lexicon, that is the highest possible accolade. A horse, after all, carries you. Takes you to places you've never been before, such as the final four. And as horses go, Charles Linwood Williams is a thoroughbred.

Williams can scarcely recall a time he was not working hard at basketball. On the playground near his home in Rocky Mount, N.C., he would practice into the early morning hours. During several summers, he went to Philadelphia for more sophisticated competition.

Not that the gang around Rocky Mount was beneath him. Fellow townsman Phil Ford sometimes would bring a Walter Davis back to the playgrounds for pickup games. Magic Johnson even came down from college once, although Williams was in Philly at the time and missed the game.

He did go against Johnson, or at least a team on which he played, during his most recent summer adventure. Williams got the best summer job possible last year, on the U.S. Olympic team, and against the best possible competition -- NBA players.

As a practical matter, the Olympic boycott helped such as Williams. Competing in the Olympics might have brought him more prestige and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Competing against such as Brazil and Spain, and even the Soviets, would not have made him a better player.

Although his considerable esteem has come from rebounding, the moment Williams, teammates and faithful turtle-watchers recall most is one missed shot he failed to grab. The Duke disaster, the final shot of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game last season, when the fate and a Devil named Dennard denied the Terrapins a title they covet nearly as much as the NCAA.

Maryland was down a point when King shot. Williams was in head-above-the-basket position to stuff the rebound back in for victory, when King's carom hit the rim a second time. That messed up Williams' timing -- and then he landed on Dennard. Marylanders screamed Williams had been undercut and should have been given a chance to at least tie the geme from the foul line.

The officials ruled no foul.

"I try to look ahead," Williams said, "not linger too long in the past. When we do play Duke, I can't get too hung up in the game trying to get even with Dennard." Naturally, he still remembers. Naturally, it lingers longer than he will admit at first.

"I feel that (Duke) game (Jan. 10 in Cole) will be the greatest I've ever played for the University of Maryland, because I'll be fired up. No question, if the ball hadn't bounced that second time I'd have put it in and we'd have won. It was there for the gettin."