But Williams struggled in his chances against the Tar Heels as a freshman. He averaged 11.0 points on 7-for-27 shooting and had a hard time containing Cota, UNC's senior point guard.
"It let me know there's still a lot of things I need to work on to become the player I want to be," Williams said.
So he began preparing for this season a week after Florida eliminated Duke from last year's NCAA tournament. Williams started running, shooting, watching tape, working out -- doing everything he could to enhance his game.
"His talent and natural ability have always been there," said Steve Wojciechowski, a Duke assistant coach and former point guard. "Although he has gotten in better shape and has improved as a shooter, his ability to think on the floor has gotten better and can continue to get better."
The results have been tangible.
Williams has increased his scoring average from 14.5 points to 20.7, second in the ACC to Forte's 22.0. And he's doing it with more consistent shooting, raising his field goal percentage to .489, 70 points better than in his rookie campaign.
He hit two key 3-pointers and scored eight points in 13 seconds as Duke rallied from 10 down with less than a minute to go, forcing overtime at Maryland on Jan. 27. The Blue Devils eventually won 98-96.
Williams said he would not have taken those pivotal 3s a year ago.
"I think he's a very courageous player," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He's stepped up big."
Williams has become the go-to guy when the Blue Devils need a basket down the stretch, yet he still hands out 6.3 assists per game (second in the ACC) and heads Duke's ferocious full-court pressing defense.
"He's in another world as far as point guards in college basketball," Duke center Carlos Boozer said.
That's why UNC coach Matt Doherty, who called Forte the nation's best player Tuesday, still feels Williams deserves some consideration for college player of the year.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.
"I think the point guard position is so vital, and you look at his numbers, what he can do both offensively and defensively," Doherty said. "I think you can make a strong case for Jason Williams as the best player in the country."
The Sport Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.