March 25, 2013

Just about every minute Michael Carter-Williams is on the court during the NCAA tournament, which will be almost every minute Syracuse plays, the ball will be in his hands. This responsibility is what the 6' 6" point guard pined for as a freshman last season, though even more than running the team he hoped simply to shed his warmups. The McDonald's All-American was buried behind three other guards and didn't leave the bench 11 times during 2011--12. In many other games he made only a cameo.

The way that Carter-Williams reacted to his season in purgatory—staying rather than transferring, dribbling before practice so excessively he had to apply superglue to his chafed fingertips—is what propelled him from the Orange's second unit to the All--Big East second team. "You go through that, and you rise to the top," says Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins.

Inheriting a larger role as a sophomore, Carter-Williams dished out nine or more assists in nine of the Orange's first 10 games. "He came out on fire, wanting to prove himself," says Hopkins. In 35.2 minutes Carter-Williams averaged 12.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and a Big East--best 2.7 steals. His 7.7 assists per game ranked third nationally, and with an assist rate of 41.7, he is one of two NCAA-tournament-bound point guards (Florida Gulf Coast's Brett Comer is the other) to assist on at least 40% of his teammates' buckets. He is also learning about the ups and downs that come with his increased responsibility. Against No. 1--ranked Louisville on Jan. 19, he turned the ball over eight times before leading a late-game surge; his theft and dunk in the final 30 seconds sealed the 70--68 win.

The Cardinals provided another lesson in last week's Big East tournament. Carter-Williams had 27 assists in the Orange's first three wins and six in the first 20 minutes of the championship game before turning over the ball four times in the second half as Louisville stormed back from a 15-point deficit to win by 17. "I always tell him, Basketball is like a book," says his stepfather, Zach Zegarowski. "You've got to turn the page."

If he could do that after his frustrating freshman season, he can surely do it now.

PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDSTAYING POWER Carter-Williams came close to transferring after his freshman year; this season he ranked third in the nation in assists and led Syracuse to the Big East tournament final.