The people at the University of Maryland had grown all too accustomed to these mid-week afternoon news conferences. Into a room they would march, grim-faced, braced for bad news. Really bad news. News conference concerning Len Bias's death. News conference concerning Lefty Driesell's forced resignation. Concerning Bob Wade's forced resignation. Concerning NCAA probation and sanctions. Concerning Jerrod Mustaf passing up his final two years of eligibility. Concerning the school's appeal regarding probation. Concerning Lew Perkins's resignation.

The people at Maryland had developed a Pavlovian response: There's a news conference, oh my God, what's wrong now? In College Park the last four years, the only good news was no news. Until yesterday. Maryland called a news conference concerning its basketball team and people actually smiled. Nobody was sanctioned, suspended or forced to resign. Walt Williams, who could have called this little meeting to announce he was leaving Maryland for Georgetown, UNLV or Georgia Tech, instead proclaimed he was staying put at Maryland for the rest of his college days. "Can you believe one of these gatherings with people smiling? This is the first time we've had good news in so long," Coach Gary Williams said.

The first reaction to his announcement in many quarters will be, Say what? Let's get this straight: He could have gone to Georgetown and played with Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo; he could have gone to Georgia Tech and played with Kenny Anderson; he could have gone anywhere he wanted, immediately played on live TV and in the NCAA tournament, but he chose to stay at Maryland?

Certainly, no one could have blamed Walt Williams if he had said, "Thanks for the memories, please forward my mail to McDonough Gym."

But the decision he made apparently was in his best interests (not to mention Maryland's) and it may dramatically help the immediate future of Maryland basketball. It wasn't a decision Walt Williams required a lot of help making and it wasn't one he rushed. Someone asked why it took him almost all summer to decide and he said: "This is the biggest decision I ever had to make in my life, so I wanted to get it right. If I had another year, I'd take 364 more days. . . . I really enjoy the people here. I was aware of how many credits I would lose and I want to keep on track for graduation in four years. . . .

"When I first started thinking this over, it wasn't hard to picture myself in other uniforms. But it got harder the longer the process went on. I'm an easy person to get along with, and I think I could have made the adjustment, but you still have to prove yourself to a new coach and a new team. There's a lot of uncertainty. It wasn't just out of loyalty that I decided to stay; first of all, you've got to be loyal to yourself before being loyal to anyone else. Maybe it does send a message that some of us feel a lot of good feelings about Maryland. . . . But I'm not getting down on anyone who did leave this university."

Williams didn't name any names, but clearly he was talking about friend and former teammate Mustaf, sitting a few rows away, who came to lend moral support. Mustaf, who made himself a first-round draft choice, appears to have done the right thing for him. Williams feels he made the right decision for himself.

How, you ask, can that be when he can never test himself in that crucible of the national tournament because of Maryland's NCAA-imposed two-year sanction?

Nowhere is it written that a kid can't play professional basketball -- that is Walt Williams's stated goal -- if he doesn't shine in the NCAA tournament. Robert Parish did nicely for himself. So did Jeff Malone. "Maybe for a person who's not going any further in basketball than the college level, the NCAA tournament and big TV games would be the ultimate goal," Williams reasoned yesterday. "But I have higher goals set for myself than TV and the NCAA tournament."

Toward that end, Gary Williams can be counted on to help. Without Walt Williams, his team would be in a mess. With him, Maryland can be reasonably competitive. Without exacting an out-and-out promise, Walt Williams wanted to find out exactly what he'd be getting for this sacrifice. "He's not going to have TV or the tournament," Gary Williams said. "But what he will have is the opportunity to play a position that will help him prepare for an NBA career. There's a million small forwards at 6-8; there's even a lot of off guards that size. But there aren't many point guards with his size and ability, and there are a lot of things we can do to get Walt involved."

This is the deal: Walt Williams stays at Maryland for at least one year, maybe two. He will learn how to play the point position, probably very well. He will be The Man. Gary Williams and Walt Williams make a nice combination. Maryland will not be a patsy with both of them.

This is not the scenario many people expected. They would ask Walt, when he got to the playground, where he was going to school. He'd say very honestly, "Don't know." People would ask Gary Williams, who was recruiting his head off, and he would say, "Don't know."

One night last week, when Walt had made up his mind, Gary was scared to take the call. Well, apprehensive if not scared. It was a state of anxiety Gary Williams had not experienced in many, many years. "I'm usually a very, very positive person," he said. "Before a game against the best team in the country, I'm convinced when I walk on the court my team will win. But this team had been beaten up more {last year} than any team I've been around. I was kind of disappointed in myself too, because I had let that same feeling change me to some degree. You lose confidence that anything good can happen to you.

"We've been hit so many times, it's tough to believe something good will happen. Hey, this is one of my better recruiting jobs."