No. 6 v. No. 1. Syracuse v. Louisville. Two top teams, two Hall of Fame coaches (I know Rick Pitino isn't "in" yet, but that's a joke and just a matter of time.), one KFC Yum! Center. It doesn't get much bigger than that when it comes to college hoops.
And Saturday's showdown with the Cardinals presents a huge opportunity for Syracuse. To collectively prove itself. To show its not just a team inflated by eating up cupcakes, that its a team that can overcome the suspension of senior James Southerland, and to officially announce its a team that will have to be reckoned with come March.
Plus, Saturday is a chance for the freshmen trio of Dajuan Coleman, Trevor Cooney, and Jerami Grant to gain valuable experience in a tough situation with a hostile crowd. It's the type of game, even if the three play poorly, that will payoff in games to come.
But of anyone, Michael Carter-Williams is the one who has the most to gain against Louisville.
The sophomore has had a strange season to say the least. Electricity mixed with growing-pains and a smidge of off-court trouble. A recipe that has led to just as many "Oh, did you see that!" moments as it has "Oh, no, what was he thinking!" moments. Typical for a talented young point guard.
But Carter-Williams has bigger aspirations and so does his team. SU was seen as a possible Final Four squad. Carter-Williams a possible top-ten pick on various mock drafts. A recent downward trend by MCW, which may be more of the real-thing than an aberration, isn't good for SU's spring plans and it won't help Carter-Williams' NBA stock.
Just look at the numbers: Carter-Williams has made 10 of his last 38 field goal attempts, including a 3 for 12 effort against Villanova. On the season the sophomore is shooting just under 37% from the floor, not horrible, not good, not what is expected. And Carter-Williams is making just 27% of this three-point attempts -- a horrid percentage, especially for a guard.
Of course, there's a lot of good with MCW. He is leading the NCAA in assists-per-game (9.4), and he is still playing stellar defense -- good enough for fourth-best in the nation in steals (3.2 spg). Plus, and this is the kicker of all stats, Syracuse is 16-1. A point guard is most often compared to a quarterback for obvious reasons - controlling the offense, leading the team, etc. And like QBs, point guards are often judged on win/loss records -- Syracuse is 16-1 with Carter-Williams at the helm. Pretty good.
Yet, there is little question Carter-Williams is experiencing major growing pains. His reputation off the court took a hit with the shop-lifting "thing" and his on-the-court rep is taking the same hit for his inconsistency. It's not that Carter-Williams needs to improve his shooting (duh), it's that he needs to be able to finish at the rim better and, most importantly, get a better grip on half-court sets. Again, that's all knowledge learned over time, something he and Syracuse don't really have.
It's already January, this will be Syracuse's fifth Big East game of the season. Times ticking. What better way to get a grip on everything than by going into the number one team's arena and playing the best game of the season? And the thing is, for Carter-Williams and for Syracuse, this game isn't a "must-win." A loss at Louisville will not break the point guard or the team. (Although, a blowout loss for Syracuse would not help a young team dealing with issues.) SU will have plenty of chances to showcase its worth and, just the same, Carter-Williams will have more time to show he is the leader and ready for some next-level love.
But, other opportunities won't be at the number one team's gym. A win Saturday will erase lingering doubts about either player or team. Beating Louisville in what could be the biggest game of the season in college hoops to this point will set both Syracuse and Carter-Williams up for much bigger things down the road.
Syracuse v. Louisville. A lot on the line -- game on.