SYRACUSE, N.Y. – After sitting for much of the tail end of his freshman year and watching exclusively from the bench during the NCAA tournament last spring, Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams is off to a stellar start as a sophomore.
After four games, Carter-Williams leads the nation at 9.3 assists per game and is tied for second in steals. He is clearly the catalyst for the high-powered Orange.
"I just try to pick apart the defense," he said. "I've worked very hard at it, creating angles for my teammates to get open. I'm just getting communication with my teammates, getting more comfortable each and every day."
That comfort level sure made Colgate coach Matt Langel a bit more uncomfortable than usual on Sunday. A week after recording 11 assists in a win over Wagner, Carter-Williams had a career-high 13 against the Raiders.
Langel was not the least bit surprised. The 6-foot-6 Carter-Williams was a recruiting target when Langel was an assistant at Temple.
"He's a hard worker," said Langel, in his second season with the Raiders. "His size at the point guard position is something that you don't find a lot in college basketball. I think he's still improving and his potential is probably untapped still at this point. He's understanding his role on this team to be a facilitator, and when he gets penetration to be able to see over the defense and find his big guys and find his shooters, with the minutes he's getting I think he's starting to learn what he can do to really help this team."
Carter-Williams has 37 assists with 11 turnovers, 16 steals, and is averaging 10.3 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Syracuse (4-0) plays next at Arkansas (3-2) on Friday in the SEC/Big East Challenge, and so far, this Orange team is different from last year's model, when Dion Waiters, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine shared most of the load at guard. Though adept passers, they looked to score and did, finishing second, third, and fourth on the team behind Kris Joseph.
"Mike is really good with his eye. Coach says in practice, 'Expect the ball any time because any time you're open, he's going to throw you the ball.' Sometimes, you don't expect it," center Baye Moussa Keita said. "That's different this year."
In the first four games, Carter-Williams has taken 36 shots — one fewer than his assist total. He is behind Triche (46) and James Southerland (38), and has one more than C.J. Fair.
"He's getting better," coach Jim Boeheim said of Carter-Williams. "He still has a lot of work to do, but he's playing well. He's getting the ball in the right places."
Carter-Williams has vowed to be "more aggressive scoring if my team needs me."
What's not different on this team is the performance of the first player off the bench. Southerland has taken up where Waiters left off, averaging 15.3 points to tie Triche for the team lead. Waiters averaged 12.6 points in 2011-12 despite not starting one game to earn Big East Sixth Man honors. He was also the fourth pick of the NBA draft.
Syracuse will face an Arkansas team that thrives on pressure defense, and Carter-Williams will attract more than his share of attention. Triche says he's ready for the challenge of handling the ball more, even though he's struggled with 13 turnovers and only 12 assists in the first four games.
"They're very tough playing at home," Triche said. "They're a transition team and they're going to press us the whole game, but I think we're ready for it. We've got guys that can handle pressure.
"These guys — one or two guys, sometimes three — are going to come at you at once. You're going to have to make different types of passes. I think we're going to be able to beat the pressure."
Syracuse lost two of its best outside shooters in Waiters and Jardine, and has struggled so far as redshirt freshman Trevor Cooney has misfired from long range. The Orange are 17 of 64 (26.6 percent) from beyond the arc, with Cooney shooting a miserable 2 of 15 (13.3 percent). Against Colgate, he missed all seven tries.
But it's early, and the coach has seen this all before, of course. The solution is simple.
"He's a shooter," Boeheim said. "You've just got to keep shooting."