The best player to take the court Thursday night at the Verizon Center also had reason to be the most distracted.
The most impressive individual component of Syracuse's most impressive takedown of top-seeded Indiana came from its rangy sophomore Michael Carter-Williams. Known more for distributing than scoring - and at times more for receiving critique than praise - the point guard hung a career-high 24 points on the Hoosiers. While using his lengthy 6-foot-5 frame to help tie up Indiana's shooters on the other end, the typically suspect perimeter threat knocked down three of Syracuse's four 3-pointers.
The starring NCAA Tournament performance came just after the Massachusetts native learned his family home was destroyed in a fire during the Orange's third-round game against California.
“I think he’s obviously happy that no one got hurt,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, “and that his mom and dad and his siblings have got a place to live.”
Even with that unwanted backdrop, Carter-Williams went the tunnel-vision route and used his tremendous court-vision to help Syracuse survive and advance in his team's biggest game to date. He is one of the nation's leaders in assists, averaging over seven per game.
"You know, I think when I'm on the court or when I'm in practice, you know, all my focus is on my teammates and the team," Carter-Williams said on Friday as the Orange met their media obligations before facing Big East rival Marquette on Saturday in the East Region finals. "You know, outside of basketball I think I can just be there for my family as much as I can, but when it comes time for basketball, everything else is kind of irrelevant. I'm just focused on the team."
With Carter-Williams and backcourt partner Brandon Triche stymieing Indiana's smallish backcourt at every turn, Syracuse forced Indiana into a season-high 19 turnovers. There will be no physical domination against Marquette's starting guard tandem of Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan, but the Golden Eagles may not have answer should Carter-Williams once again play like a the projected NBA-lottery pick that he is. DraftExpress.com ranks him 15th among this year's potential prospects.
He scored 14 points in Syracuse's only matchup against Marquette this season, which was won by the Golden Eagles back in February. The loss came during a stretch where Syracuse - and arguably the team's floor leader - played its worst ball of the season, losing four of five. Nobody is saying such things about the Orange or Carter-Williams now. Now Syracuse is one win over a conference rival away from the program's first Final Four since 2003.
"The Big East is a tough conference," Carter-Williams said. "It's special that at least one team is going to the Final Four, and the Big East has been tough all year. Going against Marquette is going to be tough, but we've seen them before, so it should be good."