WASHINGTON The way Michael Carter-Williams began the season, a plenty of observers were quickly comparing the Syracuse University sophomore point guard to ex-Orange greats Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas and Gerry McNamara.
He was leading the country in assists through November and December, was on the NBAs radar as a first-round and possibly lottery pick, and figured to be in the running for Big East Conference Player of the Year.
Then, as one might have expected from a youngster who barely played as a freshman, the Hamilton, Mass., native hit the proverbial wall once conference play started.
Big East defenses took him out of his game, bumped and grinded him to death, and basically turned him into a shoot-first point guard instead of a pass-first point guard.
It was a wake-up call for me, to be sure, Carter-Williams said in the SU locker room at the Verizon Center Saturday after earning regional MVP honors, helping lead SU over Marquette, 55-39, for the East Region championship. But I learned a lot from that down period. Im harder on myself than anybody, and I was just determined to get back to playing great basketball and leading this team.
Its no coincidence, then, that SUs fortunes turned around when MCW, as hes called, returned to the form that wowed the country early in the season.
He recorded 14 assists in a Big East Tournament first-round come-from-behind win over Seton Hall.
In the five games since, he has 59 assists, just 20 turnovers and has scored 71 points, including 24 in a big win over Indiana in Thursdays regional semifinals.
All this despite plenty on his mind. His home in Massachusetts was damaged by fire last weekend.
On Saturday, Carter-Williams had another efficient performance with 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting, eight rebounds (all on the defensive end), six assists and only one turnover.
SU coach Jim Boeheim said Carter-Williams has made a lot of great decisions during our great run. Hes shown great leadership, poise, toughness and a tenacity that any coach loves.
Backcourt mate Brandon Triche appreciates Carter-Williamss tenacity and competitiveness. I think his teammates feed off of that, and makes us want to play harder.
Im just trying to be the best teammate I can be, said Carter-Williams, likely to leave school if the NBA calls him early. Our success is just team success. Im only playing a small part.
WHEN TURNAROUND BEGAN
Boeheim and the players point to their first practice after the Georgetown debacle, a 61-39 shellacking here on March 9, as a key point in their becoming a national contender again.
The players gathered at the Carmelo Anthony Center, SUs practice facility, early on a Sunday afternoon and began a spirited 4-on-4 workout that lasted a couple of intense hours.
I was actually late because I forgot to turn my clock (ahead), and when I showed up the kids were really going at it, Boeheim said. You could sense they were taking their frustrations out on each other.
Said Triche: We wanted to make sure we werent just going through the motions at practice, and that we rededicated ourselves to be as good as we could be.
It didnt show right away as SU fell behind by double digits to Seton Hall in its first Big East Tournament game. But senior James Southerland kept the Orange in the game with five 3-point baskets in the first half, and SU rallied for a 12-point win.
The rest is history.
Boeheim was asked after his team made it to his fourth Final Four why he keeps on working so hard at his age (68) when he could walk away with tons of money and his legacy intact.
Because we still love coaching, he said. Whenever (Duke coach) Mike (Krzyzewski) and I get together, we always tell each other how lucky we are to be doing this. I came to Syracuse as a walk-on 51 years ago, so I know what its like to start at the ground up.
Boeheim reiterated earlier this week that he would definitely coach the Orange next year, when SU switches from the Big East to the Atlantic Coach Conference.
But one of these Septembers, with practice just around the corner, Im going to say, enough. Ill know when, but it will be hard because no coach or players wants to walk away.