By Howard Fendrich
---- — If all Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams needed to worry about lately was basketball, that would have been plenty.
Could he generate enough offense to help the defense-first Orange get to the Final Four?
Could he take advantage of the NCAA Tournament spotlight to improve NBA teams’ opinions of him?
There also was this on Carter-Williams’ mind, though: His family home in Hamilton, Mass., was hit by a major fire two weeks ago.
“When I’m on the court, or when I’m in practice, all my focus is on my teammates and the team,” the sophomore said. “Outside of basketball, I think I can just be there for my family as much as I can. But when it comes time for basketball, everything else is kind of irrelevant. I’m just focused on the team.”
Carter-Williams did a terrific job of dealing with one thing at a time, so much so that he was chosen as the top player in the East Regional for helping No. 4 seed Syracuse beat No. 1 seed Indiana, then 3 seed Marquette, to make it to the Final Four for the first time since winning the 2003 NCAA championship.
After a dismal 1-4 stretch to end the Big East regular season, Syracuse (30-9) has won seven of its last eight games and will play Michigan (30-7) — the South Regional’s No. 4 seed — in the national semifinals at Atlanta on Saturday.
“We’re starting off the games real well. Once we get a lead, we try to build on it. We don’t look back. We don’t get comfortable. We always put the pressure on the other team,” said Carter-Williams, who played a year at Hamilton-Wenham Regional before transferring to St. Andrew’s in Rhode Island.
“If they’re going to come back, they’re going to have to do something spectacular.”
That is thanks to him, in many ways.
For as much attention and praise as Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense has received lately — and rightly so, especially after holding both Indiana and Marquette to season-low point totals — the Orange might not be where they are if it weren’t for Carter-Williams’ all-around game.
“He’s a tremendous, tremendous point guard. He really is,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who is 3-0 in national semifinal games and 1-2 in national title games.
“He keys it for our team.”
In the East Regional final, Carter-Williams did a little bit of everything, finishing with 12 points, eight rebounds, six assists, five steals and only one turnover as Syracuse beat Marquette, 55-39. On Thursday, he scored 24 points in a 61-50 victory over Indiana in the regional semifinals.
“I think Michael Carter-Williams, over the last couple of weeks, may be playing the best he’s ever played,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said, “and that says a lot, because he’s always been really good.”
He didn’t really get a chance to prove that last season, though.
As a freshman, Carter-Williams did not start a single game, averaging 2.7 points and 2.1 assists while stuck as Boeheim’s fourth choice at guard, behind Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and native Dion Waiters, who was the No. 4 overall pick in the NBA draft.
“He struggled at times in practice last year, playing against those guys,’’ Boeheim said. “What you would figure would be normal. But he showed that he could be a good player last year. There was no doubt about that. This year, once he got his opportunity, from Day 1, he was really good.
“When his shooting gets better, he will be a great player. He understands the game. He sees the game. He’s got a great feel for the game of basketball.”
All spindly arms and legs while out front of Syracuse’s zone, the 6-6 Carter-Williams really blossomed this season, ranking third in Division I by averaging 7.6 assists and fourth with 2.7 steals. He also averaged 11.8 points. One weakness is hit shooting. He’s shooting .397 from the floor and .297 on 3-pointers.
Triche, a senior guard, enjoys playing alongside Carter-Williams at both ends of the court.
“He’s one of the most competitive guys that I’ve seen ... going up as high as he can to get the rebounds, tough ones; getting steals and making every [play] possible to win the game,” Triche said. “He makes the winning plays — loose balls, things like that. It’s not all about points for him. It’s all about winning.”