It's 2 o'clock in the morning and A.B. Williamson has been working for 18 hours, sitting in a messy hotel room, wiping sleep from his eyes and trying to figure out how to keep a crazy and miraculous season going.
Williamson is trying to get a team with no true point guard and no center--a team that has lost nine players in the last year--through this weekend's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament and into the NCAA championship competition.
"You ask me how we've done it, how we've gone 11-1 in the conference (18-8 overall) and I can't explain it," Williamson said. "It's miraculous, the most fun I've ever had as a coach. People have called these kids scrubs and everything else. But I guess we've all learned that sometimes character overrides skill."
This team's character was put to an extreme test in late December when five players were declared academically ineligible, leaving the Bison without enough players to hold a full practice.
"When the athletic director (Leo Miles) told me we would lose them," Williamson remembered, "I threw up both hands and said, 'Oh, my Lord.' We sat in study hall with those kids all but two nights in the fall. Now, all we had were five freshmen, two juniors and two seniors. We had to get a walk-on to have enough players to scrimmage. It was trying."
And Williamson started trying new things. The five players he lost included Charles Johnson, the starting point guard, and Chauncey Terry, the starting center.
"I have never been a believer in gimmick defenses," Williamson said. "But I had to adjust. I had to realize with only nine players, there were certain things we just couldn't do offensively and defensively. One of those things I had to change was the man-to-man defense. So we went to some gimmick defenses (traps, changing zones) and surprisingly, they worked."
Williamson and Cy Alexander, his assistant, are still wondering why they work.
"We'd look at the statistics after a victory," Williamson said, "and ask each other, 'Why are we winning? We're getting outrebounded by 10, the other team was making 10 free throws more.' Then we'd look at the conference stats and find nobody from Howard in the top 10 rebounders, nobody in the top 10 scorers, nobody in the assists leaders... All we has was team shooting (49 percent) and team defense."
And he also had players who listened and did exactly what was asked of them. That is a reversal from what has happened at Howard the past few years.
Those teams of a few years ago were simultaneously a joy and a horror to watch. At their best they were the "dunk patrol," a high-flying, fast-breaking unit that was good enough (in 1981) to win the MEAC tournament and earn an automatic NCAA bid. But on many nights they lacked discipline, shooting 20-footers on the first play following a timeout in which Williamson had diagrammed a play designed to go inside.
"Some of the fun had left coaching the last year or so," Williamson said. "I couldn't see on the floor any of the things I had taught."
There are no prima donnas now. And Howard may be the most patient team in the conference.
The only player who made all-MEAC was Bernard Perry, a 6-foot-5 senior guard and cocaptain who has started every game for four years and shoots like an all-America (17 points per game).
The point guard is Gino Warner, a 6-3 senior and an "A" student in architectural engineering. Warner is big, slow, not a great ball handler and shoots only 37 percent. At the beginning of the year, Williamson wanted only nine or 10 minutes per game from Warner.
"I call him my Billy Kilmer," says Alexander. "Nothing he does looks pretty. People say, 'Gino misses too many layups, Gino can't handle the ball.' But he wins. He plays up to his potential every night and takes charging fouls, hits the open man."
The center is Derek Caracciolo, an Air Force veteran who is averaging eight points and five rebounds, while shooting 64 percent. "Caracciolo does for us what Ed Spriggs did for Georgetown last year," Williamson said. "He's older and he didn't come to Howard to play basketball. He's a settling influence."
The rest of the league is still trying to figure out how Howard did it.
"You just don't lose four seniors, then five kids at the semester and turn it around in the same year," said Don Corbett, coach of North Carolina A&T. "This is the first time since I've been in the conference that there was no need to vote for coach of the year. Of course, it was A.B. He's been great."
"You don't know how happy this season makes me feel," Williamson said. "I feel I've quieted a lot of critics who said I can't coach, that my teams have had no discipline, that I've wasted a lot of talent.
"We've always had discipline. We're the only team in the conference who has beaten teams like Bradley and Dayton. But this is the most fulfilling team I've had in coaching, except maybe the Eastern High School team that won the Interhigh championship.
"The things I like in basketball, this team has come closer to reaching than any I've had. And considering what we've come through, I'm proud of them. Very proud."