The No. 6 Syracuse Orange are coming off a disappointing loss to a reborn Villanova Wildcats team who have been making a habit of taking out top-five teams.
After losing three straight games in Big East play, including an 11-point loss to Syracuse, the Wildcats shocked then-No. 5 Louisville with a 73-64 win last Monday night. The Wildcats then avenged their loss to Syracuse in a 75-71 overtime thriller that saw Villanova make key three pointers while Syracuse, once again, missed key free throws.
Villanova (13-7, 4-3 Big East) has something to build off of for the rest of the season and may play themselves into an NCAA Tournament bid if they continue their current level of play.
Syracuse (18-2, 6-1) has to now look inward and figure out what identity the team will take from here on out. Part of that identity crisis is what to make of sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams.
Throughout the season, Syracuse has been a Jekyll and Hyde, with poor performances in their first halves and making adjustments in their second halves to come away with 18 wins. This has been fueled by Carter-Williams, who seems to have trouble putting two solid halves together.
Without the presence of James Southerland, who is suspended indefinitely with academic problems, Syracuse has had to force its younger players to step up. Jerami Grant has taken the opportunity and run with it, while Trevor Cooney, who is advertised as a three-point specialist, has been very inconsistent, shooting below 30 percent on the year from beyond the arc.
But sporadic play is what marks this team. Syracuse’s points can come from a variety areas, which makes them tough to defend, but without Southerland, they become a little more predictable. In order to open their offense more, someone has to hit some outside shots to free up the lane.
This has been Brandon Triche for the most part. When Triche’s shots don’t fall, the team has to look elsewhere for guidance.
Inconsistency, meet Michael Carter-Williams.
Carter-Williams, or MCW, has been the engine that has driven Syracuse to their impressive record with his dynamic passing and opportunistic scoring. He’s also been a major reason that Syracuse has struggled with seemingly inferior opponents with poor shot selection and turning the ball over nearly four times per game.
With the amount of time MCW spends with the ball on most offensive possessions, it’s becoming clear that Syracuse will go as far as MCW takes them, or will fall as far as MCW buries them.
Knowing this, let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly of Michael Carter Williams.
Michael Carter-Williams is not only a facilitator of scoring, he’s an important part of the top of Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone defense. MCW’s heady defense against Louisville was the only reason Syracuse won that game.
His turnovers helped contribute to Syracuse trailing, but when faced with opportunity, or in his case, an errant pass, MCW has filled the top of the zone with the poise of a seasoned veteran in only his second year in a Syracuse Orange uniform.
Syracuse has enjoyed great guard play for decades, but has been primarily a school of slashing forwards. Premier point guards like Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas and Jason Hart have been rare, so having one who can create a turnover and run the fast break immediately is an incredible weapon to have.
His three steals per game are good for fifth in the nation, which puts the defense and its transition offense in a very good place.
His five rebounds per game are rare of for a point guard and put him in an exclusive category.
Michael Carter-Williams leads the nation in assists with 8.9 per game and has been the national leader since the first week of the season.
His 6’6” frame allows him to see over most guards, which makes him doubly effective in transition. On his good days, which are a majority of the time, his quick release puts the ball in the hands of scorers where they can best shoot the ball.
Syracuse has great length along the baseline, and MCW takes advantage with as many alley-oops as he can get away with.
The Big East hasn’t had a player lead the nation in assists since Mark Jackson in 1986. MCW could be the one to change that.
It’s pretty ridiculous to have a premier point guard who struggles handling the ball, but here we are.
Michael Carter-Williams can drive by defenders because of the length of his stride, but his ability to dribble the ball could use some improvement. A lot of this comes from his height, which at 6’6”, is difficult to keep a low center of gravity. MCW is so used to smaller, inferior defenders, that when a good defender puts the screws to him, such as Peyton Siva of Louisville, MCW’s dribbling flaws come to light.
This isn’t the worst thing in the world and can be fixed over time, but as it stands today, MCW is not a great handler of the ball and this could be a problem come the post season.
Michael Carter-Williams has two tendencies that have to drive coach Jim Boeheim absolutely crazy.
The first is his desire to split defenders in the lane. MCW seems to approach a double team as if it’s a skills competition, when he fully knows that two defenders on him equal an open man somewhere else.
In black jack, you never split tens; on the basketball court, you never split defenders in the key.
The second tendency is his love of leaving his feet before he knows what he’s going to do with the ball. This is Basketball 101, and he has to know by now that it’s okay to fake a jump shot and then pass the ball, but it is not okay to fly into the lane backwards with the hope that a teammate will bail him out when his lack of decisiveness gets the better of him.
Carter-Williams has also shown a proclivity for shooting his way out of a slump. This works for some players, but MCW hasn’t been so lucky. Twice this season, against Temple and the most-recent game against Villanova, MCW attempted as many as 17 shots, making three and four respectively.
Both games were Syracuse losses.
MCW has shown that he can make big shots in the clutch, as he did against Louisville, but this does not mean he’s a shooter. Like the dribbling/dancing analogy. Just because he can shoot, it doesn’t mean he is a shooter.
MCW is at his best when he’s on the break and he doesn’t have think and just has to react. This is not to say he’s incapable of making good decisions. He’s just shown that at times, his brain seems to be elsewhere.
Sure, Michael Carter-Williams leads the nation in assists, with 8.9 per game, but he’s also coughing up the ball at an awful rate of 3.9 turnovers per game, tops among point guards. That doesn’t even count for times when his teammates bail him out with miraculous catches or tipped balls that go out of bounds.
I alluded earlier that he is a fantastic passer, which is true, but on the days when he is off, balls can come unexpectedly and in bad areas of the court that do not set up for a good shot.
His questionable dribbling skills have left his pockets picked on numerous occasions and he doesn’t seem to be improving. During a game he can clean it up, as he did against Louisville in the second half, but then the bad MCW comes out to play.
His 2.31 assist-to-turnover ratio is pedestrian for a player of his skill set. This was something that Syracuse Orange fans could overlook early in the season, but with 20 games already gone, this has to end.
The beauty is that it can. He’s has Adrian Autry and Gerry McNamara as bench coaches to help him along, and he’s had at his disposal, the senior leadership of Brandon Triche, who has been at Syracuse for so long, he might have roomed with Dave Bing.
Michael Carter-Williams is a definite diamond in the rough, which may or may not hurt Syracuse. He’s got excellent court vision and poise under pressure, but he knows that he’s likely NBA bound and gets a little too free with the ball instead of making the right decision for the team.
Carter-Williams and Syracuse have Pitt coming up on Saturday. The seven-day layoff after the Villanova game might be the perfect opportunity for Jim Boeheim to get some one-on-one time with MCW to see if they can get this Syracuse ship on course.
And if he's going to continue to be the go-to guy at the end of games, he had better be sure that those free-throws fall, but that's another column all together.