A year ago, Syracuse guard Dion Waiters was having a hard time making the math work.
His minutes were sporadic. He couldn’t crack the starting lineup, no matter how well he played.
“I would score 9 points in the first half,’’ he said, “then I wouldn’t play the second half.’’
It was ego-bruising.
Waiters was considered by some a street-ball legend in Philadelphia, where he grew up. But he also had a high school track record that was hard to pin down because he went to four schools.
Today, he doesn’t think there’s a guard in the NCAA Tournament field who is better than he is.
“I’m not going to sit here and say another guy’s better when he isn’t,’’ Waiters said. “That’s just my confidence.’’
But last year, as a freshman, figuring out coach Jim Boeheim was its own challenge. Waiters’s frustration and confusion were obvious. He’d talk to the assistant coaches. He’d talk to his mother.
“He didn’t even say what’s going on or what’s the reason why,’’ Waiters said. “But you’ve got to learn from it. All this should be steppingstones for you.’’
Things reached a boiling point after the season when Boeheim said Waiters’s return to the Orange was “up in the air.’’
“Sometimes change is good for everyone,’’ Boeheim told CBSSports.com.
Waiters considered leaving but ultimately returned with a different mind-set, accepting his bench role and emerging as second on the Orange in scoring, if not their most dangerous guard.
“I think it motivated me more to get better and prove everybody wrong, that I can play here,’’ he said.
After admittedly coming in slightly overweight as a freshman, Waiters changed his diet and worked out four times a day. “I just took my work ethic to another level,’’ he said.
His minutes jumped from 16 per game as a freshman to 24 this season. He scored a game-high 18 points off the bench in Syracuse’s second-round win over Kansas State.
“You’re seeing it,’’ he said. “I’m finishing games. I played a big role, a key role in why we’re here. I dedicated myself a little bit more. My mom was telling me, ‘Don’t give up. Just prove to them that you can do it. Don’t go nowhere else because then you let him win.’ ’’
He now finds himself saying the same things to freshman Michael Carter-Williams, a McDonald’s All-American who is having his own difficulties understanding Boeheim’s plans for him.
“I talk to him every day,’’ Waiters said. “Just don’t get down. Don’t let nobody break you. Just be ready and just prove everybody wrong.’’
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan is a Midwest guy now, but he grew up in Chester, Pa., and knows the Northeast - including Boston - very well. He is well aware of the tradition surrounding the Celtics and the Gardens, both old and new.
“There’s a lot of tradition here,’’ he said. “I’m so old that really there was only one game on a week, and a lot of times it was the Philadelphia Warriors and the Celtics, or the Philadelphia 76ers and the Celtics.
“I’ve told a lot of people I happen to be on the Bobby Cousy Committee [which gives an award to the nation’s outstanding guard], and it was the most exciting phone call I’ve ever received, to be asked to be on that. Because every time I saw Cousy play, I would go to a playground and always picked up one move every time I saw him play.
“So that’s a connection to Boston.’’
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said he was a big Kevin McHale fan, as well as a fan of the city.
“Boston is a great city,’’ said Cronin. “We would have gone anywhere, but it’s great to be in Boston.’’
Wisconsin led the country in fewest turnovers the previous two years and trails only Purdue this season. The Badgers have averaged only 8.97 turnovers per game . . . Wisconsin is 23-0 when leading or tied with 5:00 left.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Mark Blaudschun can be reached at email@example.com.