CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – There’s a lot that one can take note of in looking at how Syracuse has won their first 17 games of the year. There are sophomores who waited their turn and have become key players. There’s the senior in C.J. Fair who has been a steady contributor leading up to this year. And there’s always the 2-3 zone that teams still haven’t figured out. But there’s also the steady hand, the newcomer, and that is perhaps what ties this all together.
At times on Monday night, the sophomores who had a limited role last year grabbed the spotlight. Trevor Cooney was the first one, a lights-out shooter in high school who looked nothing like that last year in limited minutes. While he hit jumpers like he did as a high schooler, he also put on a dunk fest off steals to keep Syracuse ahead in the first half. Jerami Grant also played well with 16 points and a game-high eight rebounds, and he also had the highlight of the night on a dunk off a missed shot as he was going away from the basket.
Fair didn’t really get going until the second half. In the first half, he looked like a guy who had been a piece for three years and now had to be the go-to guy. He’s never had to be that before, so this is new, and while he’s done well at it much of the year the first half wasn’t his best. He was better in the second half, looking more like the guy who scores 17 a game.
Syracuse got all they could handle from Boston College on Monday night. The Eagles battled through plenty of mistakes to hang in and then build an eight-point lead in the second half. Syracuse looked visibly shell-shocked, not handling easy passes in their offense. Then they started to come back, and it was Tyler Ennis – the freshman, the steady hand – who got it going.
“When we’ve been in that situation, guys make plays,” said head coach Jim Boeheim. “It’s not one guy. It’s been C.J. a lot, but tonight, I think it was Tyler with a couple of big plays, then Trevor, then C.J. got a couple in there.”
Ennis’ numbers on the evening were good, though hardly the stuff of legends. He had 12 points on 4-11 shooting, but he handed out five assists with one turnover. The big key was when he did the damage. With the Eagles up 47-39, Ennis got a layup, rebounded a BC miss, then hit a three-pointer to make it a three-point game. The Eagles would respond to get it back to six, but then the Orange went on a 16-2 run to take the lead for good.
During the decisive run, Ennis didn’t score. The damage on the scoreboard was done by Cooney (seven of his game-high 21), Grant (five) and Fair (four of his 12 on a 4-13 night from the field). But as has been the case all season, Ennis was there, as he sat for only a matter of seconds and kept the offense running.
“It’s rare a freshman point guard comes in like this and is a leader on the team, a steady hand on the team,” said Grant. “It allows us to stay poised in situations like we were in tonight.”
Cooney and Grant have emerged in part because each had to wait their turn behind older players. In Cooney’s case, shooters are often all about rhythm, and limited minutes didn’t help. He shot below 27 percent from long range last year, and it would have been easy for one to think this wasn’t a good situation. Now that he’s shooting over 42 percent and a big part of this team, it’s clear it was mainly a matter of getting his chance.
“It’s all about him being comfortable and confident in himself,” said Fair. “Last year, he didn’t have many opportunities where he could shoot. He could come in the game, miss a shot, then come back out. It’s hard to get rhythm like that.”
Ennis has helped make this easier for everyone. After Monday night’s effort, his assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 4.2. He’s had five games without committing a turnover this season, and Monday night was his third game with just one. More importantly, he has poise you don’t often see in a freshman point guard, and the Orange have needed it at times this year, much like on Monday night.
Cooney said the team has tried to get Ennis to have more confidence in his shot, and he has generally shot well on the year. In high school he was a capable scorer, but he has to run the team. As well as he’s done striking the balance of getting others going and calling his own number, he can still get better. But his unselfishness and floor leadership have been big.
“He takes a lot of pressure off of me,” said Fair. “It’s not often you can rely on a freshman point guard with the way he performs.”
Added Grant: “When your point guard is someone who doesn’t get rattled, it definitely helps everyone overall.”
Boeheim said the offense has been this team’s big challenge, and that has been the case often. Teams still haven’t figured out how to attack the 2-3 zone, although Boeheim has never simply had guys stand in place in that defense. He does different things with it to keep teams guessing, in addition to often stacking the perimeter with length. The Orange have had growing pains at the offensive end, and it’s been a part of some deficits. Ennis has been the steady hand keeping the offense going, leading them to do enough at that end to start off with 17 wins and counting.