Andrew Wiggins. Jabari Parker. Julius Randle. Aaron Gordon. And most recently Joel Embiid. These are the names you’ve heard most in regard to the freshmen roaming the college basketball landscape, and for good reason. Wiggins was the player everyone in the NBA was supposed to be tanking for. Parker was close behind and took the NCAA scene by storm. Randle and Gordon constituted the versatile big men with the NBA bodies. And Embiid has shown tantalizing skills as a raw big who gets ever more polished with each game he plays.
Yet none of them have had a bigger impact than Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis, the diminutive point guard from Canada.
Ennis is the engine that makes the undefeated, top-ranked Orange go. While his numbers may not jump out at you — 11.8 points, 5.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game on 42.7 percent from the floor, 37.5 percent from three and 75.7 percent from the line — all you have to do is watch Syracuse play to understand the effect he has on each and every game.
For a 19-year-old who has played in (and started) just 23 games at the collegiate level, Ennis has poise beyond his years. That’s evident by the trust Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has in the freshman point guard. On a team with senior leaders C.J. Fair and Baye Moussa Keita, Boeheim always puts the ball in the hands of Ennis. Given the tremendous talent and success of a player like Fair, you’d think the longtime coach would do what a lot of coaches do and put the ball in his senior leader’s hands come crunch time. Yet watch any Orange game and you’ll see everything running through Ennis even in the most crucial moments.
That’s because Ennis always seems to make the right play. He’s a point guard you can truly trust. That’s clearly shown in his hard-to-fathom 4-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. And it’s most evident when Cuse really needs him. Just check out what Ennis has done at the end of Syracuse’s five closest games — the only games in which the Orange did not win by double digits.
Take, for instance, the last seven minutes of the Orange’s 68-63 victory against St. John’s in Madison Square Garden back in December. With the Orange down 58-56, Ennis hit Fair for a jumper to tie the game. After the Red Storm went up two again, Ennis calmly nailed two freebies to tie it up again with less than five minutes to play. He followed that up with a layup to give Cuse a two-point lead and a little later helped extend the lead to four by assisting on yet another Fair bucket, 64-60 Orange with less than three to play.
And Ennis just kept coming. After a St. John’s free throw, Ennis assisted yet again on a Fair score to make it 66-61 with just over a minute and a half to play, went down and nabbed a steal on defense, and eventually sank two more clutch free throws to seal the deal and give the Orange the victory.
You can also look at Syracuse’s 49-44 win against Miami in the Orange’s first game of 2014. With less than six minutes remaining, Cuse trailed by five. Then Ennis found Rakeem Christmas in the paint for an easy bucket. After Jerami Grant cut it to a one-point game, Ennis hit — guess who — Fair for the go-ahead bucket. He followed that up with a layup to extend Cuse’s lead to three with less than three minutes remaining.
But the Hurricanes kept coming, scoring to make it 43-42 with just over two minutes remaining. Ennis responded with another layup, again extending the lead to three, and he eventually put the game away by sinking two more clutch free throws to make it a two-score game with just eight seconds left.
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