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.
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.
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.