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College basketball: Carter-Williams has talent to be NBA lottery pick

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The debate has been ongoing since Syracuse sophomore Michael Carter-Williams took the nation by storm with his early-season heroics.

Is the 6-foot-6 point guard a legitimate NBA first-round prospect, or does he need another year of seasoning to become a player the pros covet?

Opinions are varied. Some say he is ready right now to lead a NBA team. Others caution that MCW’s stats have deteriorated since the Big East season began, and that he is not physically ready for the rigors of an 82-game pro season.

Troy Weaver, a former Syracuse assistant who now serves as the vice president and assistant general manager of the NBA’s Oklahoma Thunder, has seen Carter-Williams in person several times. In the Carrier Dome for a recent game, Weaver said while there is a lot to like about the youngster from Rhode Island, he has some reservations about his readiness for the NBA.

“If he came out for the NBA draft, would I take him?’’ asked Weaver, who worked as a Jim Boeheim assistant from 2000-04. “I would. And so would probably every other team in the league. But he obviously needs to get stronger, to become a better shooter and learn how to finish better.”

Carter-Williams has been listed in the top 10 players in the country on various draft boards for most of the season. As of Wednesday, he ranked as the ninth-best player available on NBADraft.com and was rated 10th by draftexpress.com.

Here are some numbers to chew on. In 13 pre-Big East games, Carter-Williams averaged 10.2 assists, had an assist-to-turnover ratio of more than 2-1 and shot nearly 40 percent from the floor.

In the 11 Big East games, his statistics have fallen off considerably. He is shooting just 36 percent from the floor, his assists per game have fallen to 5.9 and he is averaging 3.2 turnovers, almost 1 1/2 more than during pre-Big East play.

“It’s not unusual for players to see their stats come down when conference play begins because teams know you so well,’’ said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who was in Syracuse for a Big Monday game against Cincinnati. “I think Carter-Williams has found that the physical play of the Big East is a lot tougher than some of the other teams they played, and he’s taking some time to adjust.’’

Carter-Williams agrees with that assessment. “It’s gotten tougher because Big East teams bump and bang you a lot more,’’ he said. “I think I’m learning how to take that and become a better player. But because I have the ball in my hands so much, I’m going to make some mistakes.’’

Carter-Williams was wowing fans and scouts alike with his court awareness and ability to find the open man as SU won 15 of its first 16 games. National pundits immediately jumped on the bandwagon, listing him in the same breath as legendary SU point guard Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas and Gerry McNamara.

“I think everyone got a little carried away with his stats,’’ said ESPN analyst and former Indiana head coach Dan Dakich, who broadcast last Sunday’s St. John’s game. “Having seen him in person, he’s really good and really smart. Is he a lottery pick? I don’t think so at this point, but he certainly has the potential to be one down the line.’’

Weaver said how Carter-Williams performs down the stretch of the Big East season and through the postseason will eventually determine his draft stock.

“If he leads this team to a Final Four and plays great, he’ll move up even further,’’ Weaver said. “But he’s got to show he can perform on the biggest stage.’’

Weaver said SU senior Brandon Triche “is probably not in the (two-round) draft right now. He’s a really good player, but I need to see a little more consistency.’’

Boeheim has proclaimed several times he thinks Triche is a first-round candidate.

Weaver likes senior James Southerland more than Triche. “He’s really long, very quick and can hit the perimeter jumper,’’ Weaver said. “I can see some team taking a shot at him late in the second round.’’

RACE TIGHTENS UP

With just three weeks left in the regular season, the Big East Conference race is so tight that a team such as 11th-place Providence, which stands at 5-7 in league play, still has an outside shot at winning the conference title.

It’s been a crazy season throughout the country with five No. 1 teams going down. And the Big East figures to get even more blurred as contending teams play each other in the final games of the season.

As of Wednesday, Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette were tied at the top with 8-3 records. Pittsburgh and Notre Dame stand at 8-4, Louisville and Connecticut are 7-4, Cincinnati and St. John’s are 7-5 and Villanova is 10th at 6-6.

Connecticut, however, is ineligible for the tournament. That will give one of the bottom teams such as Providence or Rutgers (4-8) at least a chance to move up into the top 10.

The top four teams earn a much-coveted bye into the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament on March 14 at Madison Square Garden. And teams 5-10 avoid playing in the first round on Tuesday, March 12.

In Syracuse’s case, the Orange have seven games left, three on the road (Seton Hall, Marquette, Georgetown) and four at home (Providence, Georgetown, Louisville, DePaul).

Protecting home court is more vital now because road wins are few and far between in this conference.

“Losing at home is like losing two games on the road,’’ said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whose team’s only Big East loss at home was to Syracuse when the Cardinals were No. 1. “Winning at home has become more difficult, but you’ve got to find a way to win no matter what.’’

SU is 5-0 at home in conference this year, and has won 37 straight home games, tops in the nation. The Orange know that protecting that streak the rest of the way is the key to their earning a double-bye.

“Teams are fighting so hard to get into the top four, winning at home is even more important,’’ Triche said. “And if you can sneak one or two out on the road, that’s even better.’’

Nichols, Onuaku D-Stars

Former SU standouts Demetris Nichols and Arinze Onuaku have been selected to play in the seventh annual NBA D-League All-Star Game. It will be aired live at 3 p.m. Saturday on NBATV from Houston’s Sprint Arena.

Nichols, of the Sioux Falls Skyforce, and Onuaku, of the Canton Charge, are among 20 players who were selected by the NBA D-League’s 16 head coaches. Onuaku will play for the Futures team, while Nichols will play for the Prospects Team.

Nichols is averaging 17.8 points per game. He earned NBA D-League Performer of the Week honors on Jan. 21.

Onuaku has started 17 of 20 games played with the Charge this season, averaging 12.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.

John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net

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