In a one-and-done scenario, a bad match-up can sink even the best teams. That happened to tournament favorite Indiana in the Sweet 16, when they ran into Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams. A 6'6, 185-pound point guard with a lightning-quick first step, his size and speed changed the game on both sides of the ball. The big knock on him this season has been his poor outside shot. Against the Hoosiers, he showed how dominant he can be when he's knocking down three-pointers.
Carter-Williams was a terrible match-up for a team starting two guards listed generously at 6'0, 182 pounds (Jordan Hulls) and 6'0, 178 pounds (Yogi Ferrell). Hulls and Ferrell really couldn't pressure a player so much bigger and more athletic than them. As a result, Carter-Williams had only one turnover, a stark contrast to the ten committed by teammates Brandon Triche and C.J. Fair. When he had the ball in his hands, Syracuse couldn't be sped up. By the time Tom Crean finally relented and put NBA wing prospect Victor Oladipo on him, the Orange had gotten out to a 29-11 lead and the game was essentially over.
While Oladipo is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, Crean has been reluctant to put him on the other team's primary ball-handler. That's because switching defensive assignments goes both ways. Putting Oladipo on Carter-Williams (or Temple's Khalif Wyatt in the round of 32) meant having either Ferrell or Hulls defend a much bigger wing. Against Syracuse, Indiana was in a real bind. They were most comfortable running their offense with both PGs on the floor, but they didn't have anywhere to hide them on defense. Crean even tried a 2-3 zone, which was fairly ineffective with such small guards on top.
On the other side of the floor, the size of Carter-Williams and Triche (6'4, 200 pounds) prevented Indiana from getting into much of a rhythm. Carter-Williams had four steals and four defensive rebounds, allowing him to repeatedly trigger the break and get the Orange out into the open floor. After all, it's a lot easier to push the pace when you don't need an outlet pass. NBA teams are traditionally wary of Boeheim's players because they have such little experience playing man defense, but Carter-Williams' exceptional size and quickness should (eventually) translate well to the next level.
Indiana's goal coming into the game was clearly to make him a scorer. Carter-Williams is the only player on the Syracuse roster who can create shots for others and he's a very inconsistent outside shooter. He averages 7.6 assists, but he shoots 39 percent from the floor and 28 percent from beyond the arc. This season, the Orange got out to an 18-1 start and looked like a Final Four contender before their lack of floor spacing caught up to them. With James Southerland (their best shooter) suspended for six games and teams treating Carter-Williams like Rajon Rondo, Syracuse's offense ground to a halt.
On Thursday, despite playing with a heavy heart after his childhood home burned down, Carter-Williams made a point of being more aggressive in looking for his own shot. When he goes 3-6 from beyond the three-point line, there's no real way to defend him. Crean tried almost every perimeter player in his rotation. Even Oladipo, at 6'5 and 210, didn't have the length to contest his shot and stay in front of him. Crowd Carter-Williams defensively and he can get to the rim; send help and he can make every pass in the book to find the open man. There just aren't many guards at any level of basketball with the size and quickness to handle him.
In projecting a player to the next level, few things are more valuable than the ability to create mismatches. Like most young PGs, Carter-Williams will undoubtedly struggle at times with turning the ball over, but his size and speed will give him a physical edge on almost anyone he matches up with. He will also benefit from the superior floor spacing in the NBA. Only two Orange players shoot better than 30 percent from deep, which means he rarely has open driving lanes to the rim.
Just as importantly, he will give whoever drafts him a tremendous amount of flexibility in filling out their line-up. No NBA team will have guards as small as Indiana, but there are a number who don't have anyone who can match up with Carter-Williams. If a PG makes the other team defend him with a SF, the other team's PG has to defend a SG or a SF. By dictating the match-ups on the floor, Carter-Williams makes his teammates better. If Syracuse played an NBA-caliber SG like Oladipo next to him rather than Triche, who tops out as a European player, they would be unbeatable.
Ultimately, his ceiling will depend on his outside shot. However, guys with his physical profile and passing ability (Rondo and Ricky Rubio) have been extremely successful at the next level without a consistent jumper. There are a lot of explosive but undersized scorers who can't run point in the NBA; Carter-Williams' ability to defend SGs and run the offense at 6'6 would allow a team to start someone like Ben Gordon, Lou Williams or Brandon Knight. While you couldn't pair him with a poor jump-shooter like Rodney Stuckey, any guard with a good jumper would look good next to him.
The lack of outside shooting on Syracuse's roster does not maximize his strengths, so Carter-Williams has flown somewhat under the radar for most of the season. But when he's creating space for himself by knocking down shots, the Orange are extremely tough to beat. If he was a 35-40 percent three-point shooter, he would be in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick. Instead, like Damian Lillard, he could make a backdoor run at the Rookie of the Year award if he lands in the right spot in the lottery. He's the best player Boeheim has had in a decade; there will be a lot of NBA teams watching to see if he can keep up his hot shooting in the next few rounds.