BUFFALO - Behind Jim Boeheim, his Syracuse players had begun filing on to the First Niagara Arena floor for practice, and he turned wistful for a moment, flattening his mouth and shaking his head as he paused to consider what might have been.
Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel on the same college team? It might have happened. It almost happened.
"Yeah," Boeheim said, "it could have."
Besides the Sixers' Brett Brown, there may be no basketball coach who can offer better insight into Carter-Williams and Noel and their potential than Boeheim. The two young pros are supposed to be the beating hearts of the Sixers' future, and Boeheim has had a good, long look at both of them.
A year ago, with Carter-Williams as his starting point guard, Boeheim was about to begin the fourth Final Four run of his 38 years as Syracuse's head coach. The Orange won the East Regional, lost to Michigan in the national semifinals, and two months later Carter-Williams was off to the Sixers with the NBA draft's No. 11 pick. That night, of course, Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie also traded Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for the No. 6 selection: Noel, whom Boeheim had nearly coaxed into going to Syracuse before Noel opted for Kentucky.
Now the Sixers keep losing and losing, 22 straight games and counting - all of this terrible basketball a key part of Hinkie's plan to accumulate high draft picks and construct a championship-caliber roster. The promise and potential of Noel and Carter-Williams are at the core of that plan, and if there's skepticism about what Hinkie is doing, it's born in part of the unpredictability inherent in building around talent so young.
Carter-Williams may very well be the NBA's rookie of the year, but he he's still just a rookie. And Noel, who hasn't even played for the Sixers yet because of knee surgery last year, may be the most mysterious player in the league. Was he worth the Sixers' trading away an all-star guard? What kind of player will he become?
"He will be good," said Boeheim, whose third-seeded Orange will face No. 14 Western Michigan on Thursday. "He's not just a defensive player. He's not a great offensive player, but he's not a bad offensive player. He can pass. He can move around. He catches it and finishes it. If he's healthy, he's going to be a really good NBA player."
Both Massachusetts natives, Noel and Carter-Williams had been AAU teammates, and Boeheim had been hopeful that the pair's friendship could be a decisive factor in persuading Noel to stay in the Northeast to play college ball. Five times in high school, Noel visited Syracuse's campus before he finally decided that the Orange's backlog at center - Boeheim already had three players at the position - made the chance to play right away for John Calipari at Kentucky too enticing to pass up.
As it was, Syracuse didn't need Noel last season to come within two victories of Boeheim's second national title. Carter-Williams was a vital reason, averaging 11.9 points and 7.3 assists, scoring a career-high 24 points in the Orange's round-of-16 victory over Indiana, elevating himself into a lottery pick a year after a freshman season in which he saw the floor for little more than 10 minutes a game.
"I said this from the beginning, from the first day I saw him: 'When your jump shot is consistent, you'll be as good as anybody.' That's really the key because he has the rest of the stuff," Boeheim said. "He can get by people, make good plays on defense, but he's got to develop and get stronger, which I'm sure he will.
"He's a great competitor, and he's got a really good understanding for the game. If his shooting comes along, there's no limit."
Internally, the Sixers acknowledge that their Lazarus project places heavy pressure on Brown to keep Carter-Williams from falling into bad habits, from allowing the team's incessant losing to turn him into a selfish, petulant player. Boeheim has no issue with the Sixers' tactical tanking, and he said the notion that this season might poison Carter-Williams shouldn't be of great concern.
"I could have and would have said at the beginning of the year that you would have had to worry about that, but Mike's been fine," Boeheim said. "I've watched him play, read what he's saying. He's doing everything. It's tough when you lose that many and have never done it. That's difficult. But he's been really, really good.
"He can build off this year. If he went to another team, he might just be watching. You don't learn watching. The biggest thing in the NBA is to get a chance."
The Sixers are giving him one now so they might have one later. They send Carter-Williams out there each night to take his lumps and learn his lessons, and they wait for Noel to ready his body for a full NBA season, and Jim Boeheim can appreciate what they're working toward, the glint at the end of this long tunnel.
Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel on the floor together? It could have meant something special at Syracuse. It could mean everything for the Sixers.