The maturation of Michael Carter-Williams, or how Syracuse got their ‘chip’ back

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hollywood wouldn’t need any creative license to tell the story of the 2013 Syracuse Orange, not after everything they’ve been through to earn a trip to the Final Four. The fourth-seeded ‘Cuse knocked off No. 3 seed Marquette in the East Regional finals 55-39 on Saturday night, sending Jim Boeheim on his fourth trip to the Final Four.

Their season was done by the time the regular season ended, or so the critics would have you believe. The Orange had lost four of their last five and seven of their last 12 games. The final game of the regular season? A 61-39 mollywhopping at the hands of arch-nemesis Georgetown, the final Big East matchup that the two rivals would play before Syracuse departs for the ACC and the Hoyas depart for the Big East. The team was disjointed, having failed to find a way to incorporate James Southerland back into the offense without throwing off their rhythm.

But after a stirring run to the Big East final, where Southerland set a record for threes in a single Big East tournament and the Orange earned their revenge against Georgetown, Syracuse blew a 16 point second half lead and lost to Louisville, the tone had been set. This was a different Syracuse team, and it showed in the first weekend of the tournament. The No. 4 seed Orange beat No. 13 Montana in the opening round 81-34, following that up with a 66-60 win over No. 12 Cal to advance to the Sweet 16.

But that’s when tragedy was, thankfully, averted. Star point guard Michael Carter-Williams had his house burn down during their win over Cal, and while the Williams’ family was lucky to escape without an injury, they lost everything. The house. The trophies. The clothes. All that was left were the memories.

Carter-Williams added to those memories in DC, leading the Orange to an upset win over No. 1 seed Indiana with 24 points and following that up with a 12-point, eight-rebound and six-assists performance in the win over Marquette. He set the tone defensively as well, chipping in with nine steals while committing just two turnovers in 75 minutes of play.

He was, in a word, phenomenal.

And it would be easy to point to any number incidents — the Georgetown loss, the house fire, the blown lead against Louisville — as the turning point in the Syracuse season.

In all actuality, the change came in a practice the Sunday after the loss Georgetown.

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The difference between this Michael Carter-Williams and the Michael Carter-Williams that has shot his way up, and then tumbled his way back down, NBA Draft boards earlier this season can be defined by one play that happened at the end of the first half on Saturday night.

The Syracuse offense had gone stagnant. They had made just one field goal and scored only three points over a seven minute stretch, allowing the Golden Eagles to scrap their way back from an 18-7 deficit to within 21-18. Davante Gardner had gotten matched up with James Southerland, and Carter-Williams saw it. He pulled the ball out, waving Baye Keita to the other side of the floor and and getting Southerland positioned on the right wing, 23 feet away from the rim and right in front of the Marquette bench.

Carter-Williams was being guarded by the smaller Derrick Wilson, a guy he can shoot over whenever he wants, but instead of trying to stop the bleeding on his own, he drove right, directly at Gardner, kicking the ball out to Southerland while setting a screen on the biggest Golden Eagle of them all. Southerland hit the three, and Marquette never got within one possession again.

That’s not the play he would have made back in November, especially not coming off of a career-high 24-point performance.

“It’s something I’ve learned, picking my poison,” Carter-Williams said, “when I should pass and when I should shoot. Today, I felt like I needed to pass the ball more and pick my spots when I needed to get to the basket.”

As heady as that play was, it was just a glimpse into the kind of performance that he had on Saturday night. Carter-Williams finished with 12 points, eight boards, six assists and five steals.

“Midway through the season, he really started the maturation process,” current assistant coach and former Syracuse point guard Gerry McNamara, who knows a thing or two about clutch performances in March, said. “It took him half a season to get the speed of the game down, and he was still effective. Once you get the speed down, now you can make your reads.”

“We’re starting to see that he’s really intelligent,” McNamara continued. “You see a mismatch and he’s exploited it. Assists have gone down in this tournament because he’s taking the right play. He’s not necessarily just passing for assists, he’s passing to put people in situations. Like in the Indiana game, he was the best option. We moved and spaced and his guy had trouble staying in front. And Michael’s been able to put guys or himself in situations where they can be successful.”

Carter-Williams spent the majority of the first half setting up his teammates, but when he saw Marquette sputtering early in the second half, he went for the jugular. He found CJ Fair for an and-one layup to push the lead back to 10 with just over 11 minutes left, blew by his man on the next two possessions for buckets in the paint before against finding Fair, who was fouled and hit both free throws. At that point, Syracuse was up 13 with 9:33 left on a Marquette team that had only managed to score 28 points.

At that point, the Orange-clad fans only had to wait for the fat lady to start singing.

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The day the season changed for Syracuse just so happened to be when the coaches showed up late for practice.

“The clocks went back, and Boeheim didn’t realize it,” Carter-Williams said on Saturday. “[The coaches] were upstairs, and we were on the floor for like 15 minutes past practice, so the seniors and I, we called everyone together and we were like, ‘let’s just start practice.'”

So the Orange warmed up. And they stretched. And they went through their whole pre-practice routine, and there were still no coaches.

“I forgot to set my clock forward,” Boeheim said. “I was a little late. We had a meeting upstairs and when I got down they were playing 4-on-4 and playing hard. I watched them for a few minutes and it was a really good thing. I thought our practices were really good after that.”

“We know what we’re doing,” Southerland added. “We know how practices go. … It helped us go harder.”

And that, in the end, is the difference for Syracuse. They were embarrassed when they lost to Georgetown. Humiliated, and it wasn’t any easier as they saw GIFs and tweets about the throat slash that John Thompson, Jr., gave on the jumbotron during the game, or his “Kiss Syracuse goodbye” comment in the post game press conference.

But when they stepped on the practice floor on that Sunday, it was more. It was anger. The Orange were pissed.

“We competed against each other,” Carter-Williams said. “That’s what we needed. Because that competitiveness wasn’t there against Georgetown. We didn’t compete against each other. We got a chip on our shoulders.”

“Now we’ve got our chip back.”

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.