By Matt Jenkins
---- — A stretch of subpar basketball to end the regular season was the reason the Syracuse men’s basketball team received the No. 4 seed in the East bracket of the NCAA Tournament.
Seven losses in 12 games cost the Orange a higher seed and meant they had a difficult road to the Final Four, but it also may have been what fueled Syracuse all the way through a difficult bracket.
Hamilton’s Michael Carter-Williams and the rest of his Syracuse teammates played like a team possessed in the East Regional, dropping Montana, California, top-seeded Indiana, and third-seeded Marquette to secure its place in this weekend’s Final Four. Carter-Williams will lead the Orange into Saturday’s national semifinal against Michigan (8:50 p.m.).
“We took it with a chip on our shoulder,” Carter-Williams said the night before the Orange arrived in Atlanta. “We thought we were better. We really believed that and really showed that we were the best in the bracket.”
Known for its tight 2-3 zone, Syracuse, with Carter-Williams wreaking havoc at the top, played like the best defensive team in the country.
The Orange have allowed less than 46 points per game through the tournament, including surrendering only 34 against Montana and just 39 against Marquette.
In the process, Carter-Williams has solidified his place among the top players in the country.
His last two games have been incredible and they’ve shown the versatility he has as a 6-foot-6 point guard. He produced 24 points, five rebounds and four steals against Indiana, then followed that with an all-around gem against Marquette — 12 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and five steals.
“Nothing really changed besides mentally, and how hard we worked on the defensive end,” Carter-Williams said. “The great players step up and play great in big games. I’m just trying to make a name for myself and help my team.”
Carter-Williams’ stock has never been higher. Once the Final Four was set, some NBA Draft experts projected that only two top-10 talents remained in the tournament — Michigan’s Trey Burke and Carter-Williams.
Just a sophomore, Carter-Williams has not yet made his intentions known regarding the draft, and it’s far from being the most important thing on his radar at this point.
A matchup with a red-hot Michigan team will be tough, especially with a Wolverines’ backcourt that includes Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.
“We expect them to play tough and try to score some points against our zone,” Carter-Williams said. “They’ll look to jump out on us quickly. We want to go in playing our game. We’re expecting a great, competitive game and we’re looking to play our best and come out with the win.”
Carter-Williams is looking forward to the entire Final Four experience and he’s thrilled that he’ll get to play in front of 15 family members and close friends.
His performance has made his family proud in what has been a difficult time. Carter-Williams’ home in Hamilton was severely damaged when a fire broke out in the house’s chimney while Syracuse was in the process of advancing to the Sweet 16.
Carter-Williams’ mother Mandy Carter-Zegarowski and sister Macey were in San Jose, Calif. for the game, while his step father Zach Zegarowski and his two brothers were home.
Everyone got out of the house safely and now they are all looking forward to heading to Atlanta to cheer on the Orange.
“It’s been unbelievable. We watch the Final Four every year and Zach sometimes goes just to go and hang out,” said Carter-Zegarowski, who is the varsity girls basketball coach at Ipswich. “To see Michael putting on the hat and T-shirt and cutting down the net, it was surreal, especially since I didn’t anticipate it. I wanted to think it was a possibility, but it didn’t seem like it was in the future.
“Everybody was pretty down in Syracuse Nation (at the end of the regular season). There were not a lot of positive things being said or written.”
Carter-Williams remained positive tried to reassure his mother that the team was ready to play.
“He did say to me, ‘Mom, don’t worry. I’m feeling very confident and I’m going to do whatever I can do to help us win,’” Carter-Zegarowski said. “I felt like he was willing to rebound, he was getting deflections and steals. I was really proud of him for the tempo of the game and him being in control and taking care of the ball.”
Syracuse arrived in Atlanta last night and by Saturday night Michigan will be tracking Carter-Williams’ every move. In many ways he has become the key player for the Orange.
If he continues to play at this high level, the Wolverines could become just the final obstacle before playing for the national title.
“It’s real exciting. We’ve had so many highs and so many lows, to get to the Final Four is a great thing. We’re enjoying it and enjoying the process,” Carter-Williams said. “A lot of people counted us out and we proved everybody wrong.”