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Local college basketball notes: Ennis ignites Orange

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Words like “poised, under control, efficient, unflappable’’ usually describe a veteran who has been through the college basketball wars and plays like a man with two or three years of experience.

They don’t usually describe a true freshman, and especially a point guard who has the ball in his hands 80 percent of the time and makes more crucial on-court decisions than any other player on his team.

But, as his Syracuse coaches, teammates and fans have learned about Orange rookie Tyler Ennis in his first 15 games in an Orange uniform, he is not your typical first-year player.

“You have to keep telling yourself — he’s just a freshman,’’ SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins said. “We knew he was going to really good. But honestly, I never dreamed he would be this consistent so quickly.’’

Other highly touted freshmen, such as Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, have gotten more publicity. But the understated Ennis has proved as valuable as any of them because of what he means to the Orange and the position he plays.

“I love all of the great freshmen, but Ennis is my favorite,’’ said former Providence coach and north country native Tim Welsh, now an analyst for ESPN. “He understands the game better than any freshman point guard I‘ve ever seen, and he has such a great pace about him. Nothing is ever rushed. And that’s so hard to do in today’s game with so many spectacular athletes all over the court.’’

After Ennis scored 21 points, had six assists, three rebounds and a turnover in a spectacular 39 minutes during SU’s big win at St. John’s in December, Red Storm coach Steve Lavin said Ennis “is by far the most poised young point guard I’ve ever seen. He is a throwback to days when a point guard was a pass-first player. Today’s point guard have become scorers first. Ennis doesn’t care if he scores or not as long as his team wins.’’

It’s hard to believe that SU lost a NBA lottery pick and probable NBA Rookie of the Year in Michael Carter-Williams and probably upgraded the position.

While Carter-Williams often made the spectacular play, he also was prone to making spectacular mistakes. Thus, his low 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Ennis, who is more about efficiency than flash, sports a 4.7 assist-to-turnover ratio (84/18), which ranks second in the country. He also leads the ACC in steals per game (2.8).

“I think I understand what my role is on this team, as a distributor first,’’ Ennis said. “And to make sure we are in the right offense and run the plays that are called. And if I don’t turn the ball over, that means more possessions and more chances to score. That’s how you win basketball games.’’

The freshman is averaging a modest 11.7 points per game while shooting 43 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. Ennis has reached double figures in 11 of 15 games, with a high of 28 against California in Maui.

But even in those games where he isn’t scoring a lot, Ennis makes a huge difference with his ball control and ability to find the open man.

“When he needs to score, Tyler can get us some points,’’ SU coach Jim Boeheim said. “But he will never force the issue, and always takes what the defenses are giving him. Would we like him to be a little more unselfish? At times. But right now he’s just feeling his way through games and doing what it takes for us to win.’’

Ennis isn’t a lightning-quick guard who gets to the basket with ease. His change-of-pace move and crossover dribble allow him to get past defenders.

“He kind of lulls you to sleep then, bang, he’s past you and scoring,’’ said Ennis’ backcourt buddy, Trevor Cooney. “If you’re guarding Tyler, you just think he’s not able to beat you off the dribble. But he fools almost everybody we’ve faced.’’

Hopkins says Ennis is like a good poker player. “He never shows his hand until he’s ready, and he always keeps you guessing.’’

The Canadian youngster from Brampton, Ontario, showed his potential during SU’s four-game Canadian trip in August. His poise and leadership helped the Orange sweep four games and gave a glimpse of what was to come.

The freshman really came into his own during SU’s run to the Maui Invitational title. In three games against Minnesota, California and Baylor, Ennis scored 51 points, dished out 18 assists, had 13 steals and just two turnovers (both against California) while playing 109 of a possible 120 minutes.

“That’s when we knew we had something special,’’ Hopkins said. “To be on the floor that much and to make as few mistakes as Tyler did, it was amazing to watch.’’

Ennis said, “I think I grew up a lot in Maui and proved to myself what I could do. Before that I was kind of learning on the fly. Now, every time I take the court I have more and more confidence.’’

This was the thoughts of Paul Biancardi, ESPN’s national recruiting director, when Ennis signed with the Orange. “He really can process the game while performing and keeping his focus on what the coach wants and the team needs in order to win while avoiding getting caught in one-on-one matchups. He makes the game easy for his teammates by his excellent vision and skill to deliver passes on time and on target. He demonstrates great poise in crunch time, and makes winning a priority.’’

So far, most of what Biancardi thought of Ennis has come true, and more. But the precocious rookie says he still has a lot to learn.

“I think I’ve just scratched the surface,’’ he said. “I know I can get a lot better, especially shooting and playing defense. It’s been a great learning experience so far, and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot more the deeper we go into the ACC season.’’

SU fans can hardly wait.

ORANGE TRADITION SHOULD DIE

Syracuse fans consider it part of their DNA. They must stand until the Orange successfully make a field goal at the beginning of each half.

No one is quite sure when this tradition started — some say it began with Georgetown back in the 1980s when the hated Hoyas first came to the Carrier Dome — but it’s about time it came to an end.

Last Saturday, for instance, SU faithful stood clapping for the opening nine minutes of the second half until C.J. Fair connected against Miami.

First of all, it’s annoying. No one really believes that 30,000 clapping fans can really help the Orange make a basket.

Secondly, the players don’t like it. Those surveyed after Saturday’s game said it’s more of a distraction than a help.

“I wish they’d just sit and cheer us on,’’ Cooney said. “I know today was unusually long, but it seems like the more they clap, the longer it takes us to score.’’

Fair said he thought initially the idea of fans standing until SU made a field goal was “kind of unique. But now, I’m not so sure. I’m not sure if it helps us or not anymore. I think the players are so focused on the game, most of the time they don’t notice the fans until they are going wild because we did something good.’’

HOOPS FOR STARS HIGHLIGHTED

The National Grid-sponsored “Hoops for the Stars’’ program will honor more than 150 area youth at SU’s home game at noon Saturday against North Carolina in the Carrier Dome.

Similar events will be held at games against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.

The program, which provides positive reinforcement, recognition of improved academic performance and attendance in school in cooperation with SU, is providing tickets to 12 men’s basketball games. Recipients include 2,300 student achievers from the Syracuse City School District’s eight middle schools and a parent or guardian for selected games.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net

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