By Mike Grenier
---- — PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has been around for so long that some fans think of him as an old curmudgeon, incapable of having fun with the serious business of big-time college basketball.
But despite coaching 1,210 games without a break in the last 37 years, Boeheim’s sense of humor was completely intact Wednesday night when he was asked whether he recruited Hamilton’s Michael Carter-Williams as a shooting guard or a point guard coming out high school two years ago.
“I never thought of him as a 2 (shooting guard),” Boeheim said of Carter-Williams, who is averaging 12.0 points and leads the nation in assists (9.6 per game) as a sophomore for seventh ranked Syracuse (15-1). “He didn’t shoot it well enough to be a 2.
“Most of his game is making plays,” added Boeheim. “I don’t know who pegged him as a 2. You didn’t peg him as a 2, did you? You’re better than that. It was probably some 5-foot-4 fat guy (that labeled him).”
The short fat guy was a figment of Boeheim’s still fertile imagination, and after Wednesday’s dazzling performance, Providence College undoubtedly wishes Carter-Williams was just a phantom, too.
Instead, the Friars were left with a 72-66 homecourt loss in front of a full house as the 6-foot-6 point guard with the extraordinary wingspan and terrific basketball acumen burned them by finishing with 17 points (one short of his career high), six assists, six rebounds and five steals in 38 minutes. In baseball parlance, that would be called a complete game.
Perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment by Carter-Williams is that he had just one turnover, and it came in the final 40 seconds when he was just trying to protect Syracuse’s six-point lead.
“Yeah, and he didn’t have to make the play that he did (which resulted in the lone turnover),” said Boeheim, a notoriously hard marker on his players. “We didn’t need that play at the time. He didn’t have to go long (with a pass) right there.”
“It’s always good (to have minimum turnovers),” added Carter-Williams, who played his freshman year of high school ball at Hamilton-Wenham Regional before transferring to St. Andrew’s in Barrington, R.I. “My job is to get the ball to my teammates and to have it be a positive possession. Up until that point, I thought I did a pretty good job of getting my teammates involved, but that was a big turnover late in the game. I can’t do that.”
The Providence game turned out to be a spectacular homecoming for Carter-Williams. It’s as close to home as he gets all season and his “homework” included acquiring as many tickets as possible.
His mother, Ipswich High girls basketball coach Mandy Zegarowski, bought 65 tickets through group sales, and Carter-Williams called on his teammates to donate their allotment of complimentary tickets. There were over 100 Carter-Williams fans from Ipswich, Hamilton-Wenham and various parts of the North Shore in attendance — and they all wanted a piece of him after the game.
“You always want to play well in front of family and friends,” said Carter-Williams. “It was just good to see them all here. These are the people that support me.”
Carter-Williams has become a nationally known player this winter, yet in terms of playing experience he’s still in the embryonic stage of his career. Although he was a McDonald’s All-American at St. Andrew’s School, he played a total of just 269 minutes as a freshman last year. He had to be humble and bide his time while playing behind the likes of Dion Waiters, who was the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It’s been a completely different story this season. Carter-Williams has a hand in everything that Boeheim wants his team to do. He’s already had a 16-assist game (vs. Monmouth), the third-highest total in school history, and also has eight double-doubles while moving up quickly on the Syracuse all-time leaders in that category. Defensively, he’s had 12 games with three or more steals.
His improvement didn’t happen because he willed it to happen. For 73 consecutive days last summer, Carter-Williams worked out three times a day, lifting weights at Gordon College in Wenham in the morning, shooting endlessly in the afternoon at home and playing in pickup games at Ipswich High or the YMCA at night.
At the same time, he was pushing ahead academically. A communications major, Carter-Williams has a 3.1 grade point average is on pace to graduate after just three years at Syracuse.
“We’ve never had a player like him who didn’t play (much) his freshman year and then comes on to play the way he has his sophomore year,” said Boeheim.
The Syracuse coach thought about that statement for a second and corrected himself. “Actually, Sherman Douglas did it,” said Boeheim. “Sherman didn’t play as a freshman and then became All-(Big East) his second year. That’s pretty good. Mike is heading in the same direction.
“He still has plenty of room for improvement,” Boeheim said of Carter-Williams. “He really does. Wait until he learns how to shoot better (from outside). Defenders will have to guard him closer and he’ll go right by them. He can go by anybody.”
Syracuse sophomore guard Trevor Cooney has seen Carter-Williams’ overall game develop every day since the two of them arrived on campus over a year ago. He says he’s not surprised that Carter-Williams is leading the country in assists.
“Not at all,” said Cooney. “Mike’s feel for the game is unbelievable. He’s great at knowing the next play and where the ball is supposed to be. When he has shot-makers on the floor with him, it makes his job a little easier. But it also makes our job easier knowing we have a guy who can really find us.”
Whenever Syracuse is on national TV, experts project where Carter-Williams will go in the NBA draft this spring. He could be in the top 10. Then again, it may all be premature.
For now, Carter-Williams is low keying any talk about the NBA.
“I definitely (tune it out),” he said. “I try not to listen to any of that stuff. Right now it’s about Syracuse basketball. Once the season is over, I’ll discuss those (possible) plans, but right now my focus is my teammates and our team and what we can do together for the rest of the season.”