SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP)
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 sixth-ranked 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."
Syracuse (4-0) plays next at Arkansas (3-2) on Friday night 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, who had 13 assists and one turnover in Sunday's 87-51 win over Colgate, 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 of the Razorbacks. "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."
Arkansas forced an average of 23.0 turnovers while winning its first three games at home, but it is coming off back-to-back losses in Las Vegas to Arizona State and Wisconsin. The Sun Devils and Badgers combined for 23 turnovers.
The Razorbacks led by 11 at halftime Saturday against Wisconsin, but they were outscored 48-30 in the second half of a 77-70 loss. Leading scorer BJ Young, averaging 20.5 points, scored 18 but shot 6 of 15 from the field.
Coach Mike Anderson knows his team has an even tougher task as Arkansas faces Syracuse for only the second time. The Razorbacks won the previous meeting in overtime in the 1995 NCAA tournament.
"When you talk about the ultimate challenge, that's what we're going to face here," Anderson said.