By Elizabeth McGarr
The first time Duke met North Carolina this season, on Feb. 11, the Tar Heels overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to beat the Blue Devils in Durham. When No. 7 Duke meets No. 2 UNC in Chapel Hill this Sunday, the Tar Heels will notice one major difference: Elliot Williams. The 6-foot-4-inch freshman guard watched from the bench the last time the two teams met (and had been averaging 2.5 points and 10.6 minutes per game). He broke into the starting lineup eight days later, against St. John's at Madison Square Garden, and has now started five games in a row-all Duke wins. During that stretch, he has averaged 11.6 points and 31.4 minutes per game. SI.com caught up with the chess-loving Memphis native, who is ready to make his mark on the Battle for Tobacco Road.
SI.com: How did you develop a love for playing chess?
Elliot Williams: I started out as when I was five or six years old and just got interested in the game. My father played a lot and my brother played a lot, so it was kind of like an in-house thing. We just played for fun. In high school, I would play a lot, but I didn't take it too seriously. I wasn't in the chess club. Now, for the most part, I just play on the computer when we're on the plane. I'm pretty good. I would rate [my chess game] a 7 out of 10 maybe. I haven't played against other competitive players in a while.
SI.com: Have you found any fellow chess enthusiasts among your teammates?
EW: Not at all. I've asked, but not too many people play here.
SI.com: I've heard you're an NBA trivia buff. How did you cultivate your knowledge of NBA trivia?
EW: When I was younger, I used to watch NBA TV a lot. I would just keep the channel on that and watch that all day. A lot of my friends back in Memphis, they're into that too, so we would just test each other on trivia. We would quiz each other and talk about what went on in the show.
SI.com: You've said that you considered giving up basketball in junior high. What happened to make you stick with it?
EW: In ninth grade I was small, so I had a lot of guard skills. That year, I grew a lot [from 5-10 to around 6-3], and I kept those guard skills, which helps me out a lot now. I got a little bit more athletic, and I grew from there.
SI.com: You've put on some weight since high school. How did you do it?
EW: I came in at 167 and now I'm 180, 181. I just lift weights and eat correctly. We have a good strength trainer here, and he makes sure that we get the right amount of protein in. I wasn't eating as much as I am now; that's one of the main things that put on weight for me. With my body type, I can really eat anything. I don't usually eat pizza, but I've had to try to eat that [at night] to gain weight. I've heard that's one of the best ways to put on weight: late-night eating.
SI.com: When did you find out you were going to start in the St. John's game?
EW: A couple practices before that game, I had a really good practice. Coach said he was going to go with me. It was after practice, and he just brought me into his office and told me I had been doing well and that he was ready for me to make that jump.
SI.com: You had already started against UNC-Asheville, in Durham, on Dec. 17. What was it like starting at Madison Square Garden?
EW: Madison Square Garden is one of the best places to play at. Coming in as a freshman and starting in that venue, it was great for me. I just wanted to do the best I could and play great on-ball defense and just attack when I could. My teammates knew, from the practices, that I was going to [start]. I decided not to tell my parents because I didn't want to put too much pressure on myself. They watched the game and texted me after. They said they were proud of me and to stay hungry and keep up the good work.
SI.com: You were on the bench the last time Duke played UNC. What has been going through your mind this week, knowing you'll have your first opportunity to play in one of the biggest rivalry games in college basketball?
EW: I wouldn't say I have any nerves, being that I didn't play in the game last time. I'm pretty anxious to play. I'm just going to go out and do the things I've been doing the last couple of games. I've been proud [of the way I'm] always bringing intensity, helping out my teammates, putting good ball pressure on opposing players, dribbling and coming in and just picking my spot on offense.
SI.com: You had averaged around 10 minutes per game before the St. John's match-up. Now you're averaging around 30. To what extent was conditioning a factor in making that transition?
EW: That transition has been great. One of the things I've been trying to do is just have a lot of energy out on the court. When you look at earlier in the season, when I was averaging 10 minutes, you wouldn't think that I would be in the shape I'm in, but playing in the games, you get in better shape. One of the things I've been trying to do is get extra running in during practice and just get ready to play.
SI.com: You were a McDonald's All-American, a very highly touted recruit coming out of high school, but you hadn't gotten a lot of time on the court at Duke before the St. John's game. Have people started treating you differently on campus or recognizing you more frequently?
EW: No, not really. Our fans here, they're pretty loyal. I've gotten love ever since the start. The basketball players at Duke are pretty recognized anyway.