"It drives me nuts, but I like it." -- Gary Williams

The American University basketball coach is a former point guard, so he is more puzzled than most purists when his feeder, Gordon Austin, commits the two cardinal sins of his position. On purpose. Sometimes within seconds. And usually gets away with it.

"His greatest strength," Williams said, "and I could (or would) never do this, is that he'll turn his back to the play a lot--and then spin, like Earl Monroe did, and then he'll go into the air. For a point guard, that's rule No. 1: don't leave your feet unless you have a receiver or you know you're gonna shoot.

"Gordon leaves his feet, and then creates."

With a junior corps of playmaker Austin, scorers Mark Nickens and Ed Sloane and shot blocker Juan Jones, Williams created a very appealing team that has won nearly 80 percent of its 51 games the last two seasons. The Eagles flap and fly all 94 feet of the court with a variety of presses. On offense, they get an uncommon number of uncontested shots.

Austin sees to that.

There is a method to all that in-air madness, he insists.

"Sometimes I get a charge called on me," he admits, "but most times not. I think when you leave your feet the defense freezes for a second. And I always know I have an outlet I can dish off to if I'm in trouble. I know where everybody is."

More important, Nickens, Sloane and the others are bright enough to get open when Austin draws the defense to him. That happens less often in big-time basketball than you'd imagine, for the tendency is to stand and watch an artistic Austin work his in-traffic magic.

It often means the play goes poof, for the only way a point guard can pull a basket out of the air is for the remainder of the team to hustle to the open areas on the floor rather than gawk. Altruists also need help.

"I don't think I'm out of control," Gordon said. "I'm pretty good when I'm spinning. When a team's spread out, I like to drive. Like last year, teams played me a lot more for the pass, so I was able to shoot a little bit. This year they're not sure."

This is partly why, during a seven-game stretch, Austin made 28 of 40 field-goal tries, was 41 for 45 on free throws and had 67 assists. That means he was producing, directly or through assists, an average of 34 points a game. He had only two field goals in the Senior Bowl tournament but was judged the most valuable player, for his creativity and sinking free throw after pressure free throw.

"It's a good feeling, as a coach, because I have confidence in him in clutch situations," Williams said. "I get mad at him once in a while 'cause he'll do something screwy. But in the last three or four minutes of a (close) game his concentration picks up. He wants the ball; he wants to be on the foul line. Sometimes it's hard to find enough guys who want to do that."

Austin's abilities always have been difficult to perceive: little but tough, the slowest kid on the court for 100 feet but the quickest for 10. Through high school in northern New Jersey, he was the one with Division I skills and Division II size.

"I grew up playing all the time," he said. "Went to (summer basketball) camps like in the fifth grade. Two-week sessions. Fundementally, I was so much ahead of everybody else. But I thought I never was gonna get the chance (to excel), 'cause I was so small."

Undersized (5-11) now, Austin was tiny in high school.

"My JV (10th grade) year I was like eighth man," he said. "I was 5-5. My junior year I was like 5-9, and seventh man. Didn't play the whole first half (of the season). Then I got a chance, and played well. But that always was on the back of my mind--and I should have worked harder then."

With Austin, basketball has been fun without being an obsession. There were other distractions, some of them involving sports.

Ideally, point guards are an extension of a coach on the floor. Although the special ones are more than yes men, Austin last season was a bit too cocksure at times. So the coaches devised a con. They signaled the instructions to another AU player, one of Austin's buddies, to whom he would listen.

Williams now says they are on the same mental channel, that the play he is about to scream from the sideline often has just left Austin's mouth on the court.

Austin knows exactly where and when Nickens and Sloane want the ball, and the Eagles are riding an 11-game winning streak and 16-5 record after last night's test at Towson State. Loser in the most frustrating ways to Tennessee and Wake Forest, AU probably will have to win its East Coast Conference tournament to make the NCAA playoffs, regardless of its season record. That 24-6 last year was good enough only for the NIT.

The Austin flair that so tantalizes Williams was grandly illustrated against Temple last year, the game that allowed AU to go unbeaten in the ECC and clinch the regular-season championship.

"We were up by four with about a minute-thirty left," Williams recalled, "and I was debating whether to hold the ball." He resolved not to stall, but to accept nothing other than a layup from the regular offense.

Austin gave it to him, though not in the way anyone expected. Anticipating a pass, most of the Owls charged in the direction Austin's pass was supposed to go. Take it from there, Gary:

"He just reversed (his body, Monroe-like), beat his man and went in for the layup and scored. Won the game for us. They were so intent on stopping the pass nobody got within five feet of him. He was smart enough to see that, and had enough guts to do it.

"He knew if he'd blown it, thrown the ball away or been called for a charge, I'd have been all over him. And yet he was tough enough to do it. He took it upon himself; he was gonna win the game. And he did."