Carter-Williams key cog in Syracuse's NCAA engine
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Not many teams stumbled into the postseason worse than Syracuse. Critics surfaced after a pair of embarrassing losses to Georgetown and another to Louisville capped a forgettable end to the Orange's last regular season in the Big East.
Sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams, feeding off the energy of so many former Syracuse greats in the stands, though, helped turn the tide at Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament. The Orange, on their way to the Atlantic Coast Conference in July, regained some of their swagger by reeling off three straight wins before losing to Louisville in the title game and have to feel good about their chances in the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse (26-9), which earned the fourth seed in the East, begins play Thursday night against Big Sky-champion Montana (25-6) in San Jose, Calif.
The Orange will depend heavily on Carter-Williams. When he plays well, they excel. When he doesn't, they tend to struggle. Right now, he's doing all right after accumulating 36 assists in the Big East tournament. That was one shy of former Orange star Jonny Flynn's tournament record, set in 2009.
"I definitely bring a positive attitude to the team,'' Carter-Williams said. "I've learned that you're going to go through so many struggles and games where you're going to be off. Just stay positive and learn from them every day.''
Carter-Williams has come an awful long way since a demoralizing evaluation at the end of a basketball camp in Massachusetts when he was a pudgy high school freshman.
"My evaluation was that I would be a potential (Division III) player,'' said Carter-Williams, who taped that piece of paper above his bed for motivation. "I just want to get better and better every day, just to be successful at the end of the day, take one day a time and prove everybody wrong that in my life said I couldn't be this, that I'm too slow, too skinny, whatever. Just to prove them wrong drives me.''
Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who recruited Carter-Williams, sees that drive every day, when Carter-Williams often is one of the last to leave practice at the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center.
"Him saving that evaluation and putting it over his bed - he has it - that's the story,'' Hopkins said. "Michael wasn't going to start at Syracuse. Michael wasn't going to play in the NBA. It's all how you use your experience. He was going to prove the doubters wrong.''
After wallowing on the bench toward the end of last season, coach Jim Boeheim's fourth choice at guard behind upperclassmen Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters, Carter-Williams returned for his sophomore season determined to leave his imprint on the program.
Mission accomplished, though not quite finished for Carter-Williams, who is likely NBA bound - most probably sooner than later.
Heading into the NCAA tournament, the lanky, 6-foot-6 Carter-Williams has 271 assists - along with 122 turnovers - and his long wingspan has enabled him to nab 96 steals, deflect countless passes, and block 17 shots. His 7.7 assists per game is the third-best mark nationally, his average of 2.74 steals is sixth.
"His size at the point guard position is something that you don't find a lot in college basketball,'' said Colgate coach Matt Langel, who tried to lure Carter-Williams to Temple when Langel was an assistant there. "He's still improving, and his potential is probably untapped. He understands his role on this team to be a facilitator.''
One of five finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, given annually to college basketball's top point guard, Carter-Williams made a big splash at the start of the season, grabbing his share of the national spotlight with dazzling performances in nonconference play. He had a career-high 16 assists in a win over Monmouth (N.J.) in December, one of 11 games he's reached double digits, and has netted nine double-doubles while averaging 12 points.
One of those double-doubles was nearly a triple-double. Ironically, he fell one assist shy in a key win at Arkansas in November.
When Carter-Williams decides to drive into the paint on the break, points are pretty much assured with sharpshooting James Southerland lurking on the wing and one of the Orange's big men down on the block.
"To set up an easy basket for my teammates is something that I've always liked to do. It's a great feeling to have,'' Carter-Williams said. "Scoring the ball is great, too, but I'm just a player that would rather set up my teammates. It just comes from being unselfish.''
Unlike last season, Boeheim has handled his star pupil with kid gloves, even though Carter-Williams has had his share of miscues at inopportune times - from ill-advised passes to questionable shots (he's shooting 38.7 percent).
"He wants to win,'' Boeheim said. ":He plays to win.''
And he's fearless.
"I take responsibility for us winning and losing - all the time,'' Carter-Williams said. "During the game is when I don't like losing. I'll do everything in my power to not lose a game, but once a game is over that game's done with.''
Of all the dazzling plays Carter-Williams has produced, one sequence in a January game at top-ranked Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, stands out.
Deceptively strong - Carter-Williams can do 10 bench press reps with 185 pounds - and able to accelerate past defenders in the blink of an eye, he spoiled the day for the record crowd of 22,814 at the KFC Yum! Center as the Orange eked out a 70-68 win.
A 28-percent shooter from long range, Carter-Williams hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 5:28 remaining. He then put the finishing touch on the stunning victory with a steal, court-long dash, and a two-handed slam dunk over defensive stalwart Gorgui Dieng, falling hard on his back with 23 seconds left.
Carter-Williams scored 11 of Syracuse's final 13, and, after the bone-rattling fall, added a rebound and another steal from Dieng at the other end to more than atone for eight turnovers in the face of Louisville's signature pressure defense.
If there's been a low point, it came off the court in mid-December. Carter-Williams appeared to be involved in a shoplifting incident at a popular department store chain in a local mall, and photos of the Orange star and a plainclothes security officer quickly circulated on Twitter.
Carter-Williams was never charged, but the Internet has provided plenty of fodder for opposing fans. He hasn't been able to escape their wrath.
"Every time we go on the road, I hear it. I get an earful,'' he said. "The fans try to heckle me about it on social media or during the games. It's something that comes with your actions.
"I shamed my name and my family. My mom was pretty upset. She wasn't happy with me that I put myself in a situation like that. My little brothers and sister look up to me. I just want to set a good example for them. I take that seriously.
"It's just something that I've got to learn from. It's an eye-opener. I've got to make better decisions.''
One big decision looms at season's end, and like Anthony - who bolted for the NBA a decade ago after he led the Orange to their lone national championship - it's likely to be a disheartening one for the Syracuse fans.
"Whatever happens, if I'm here next year, it's going to be a great run in the ACC,'' Carter-Williams said. "There will be some unbelievable games. If I'm not, I'm just happy to be a part of this team.''