SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Syracuse was teetering on the brink, trailing nemesis Pittsburgh by a point with less than two minutes to play, and the home crowd doing its best to rattle the Panthers.
Amid all that late-game drama Saturday stood Orange freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, an island of serenity inside the raucous Carrier Dome, and he simply did what he does best.
He took control.
Ennis converted two layups – one with each hand through the middle of the Pitt defense – and swished two free throws to complete a 16-point afternoon for the No. 2 Orange, who won 59-54 and improved to 18-0 and 5-0 atop the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“He made some of the best plays that I’ve seen in a long time,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, comparing Ennis with Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara, who as freshmen led the Orange to the 2003 national championship. “You don’t get to the basket against Pittsburgh.”
Ennis shrugged, happy that his team had won again.
“It’s really just the perfect situation,” said Ennis, another of those rising stars from Canada. “I have a lot of teammates who have a lot of confidence and can make plays, and they make me look really good.”
The low-key Ennis hasn’t attracted the attention usually associated with such a key player, but he’s easily one of the better freshmen in the country.
Entering this week, his assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.13 (99 assists with 24 turnovers) ranked fourth nationally, and only two other freshmen were in the top 50.
Virginia’s London Perrantes was 33rd at 2.77 (61 assists, 22 turnovers), while UCLA’s Bryce Alford was 48th at 2.57 (54 assists, 21 turnovers).
“I’ve used the word comical a lot this year. His assist-to-turnover ratio is almost comical,” said McNamara, who coaches the Orange guards. “His feel is as good as I’ve ever watched. I said that about Michael (Carter-Williams) last year. Tyler’s in that same realm. It’s difficult to speed him up. He plays at the pace that he wants to play at.”
Even Ennis’s dad, Tony McIntyre, can’t explain his son’s emotional maturity.
“He has always been that way. He doesn’t show much emotion,” said McIntyre, co-founder of the AAU basketball program CIA Bounce in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, Ontario. “Early on, I had to ask him, ‘Do you even like basketball? It seems like you’re bored.’ He said, ‘I get excited when my players do well.’
“He’s just a smart kid. He thinks like a coach. If he’s panicky, everybody else will panic. A point guard is supposed to be out there to make the four guys with him the best. Guys play harder with a guy they know they’ll get the ball from, and he’s never not won.”
Despite the departure of last season’s backcourt – Brandon Triche graduated after four years and Carter-Williams was an NBA lottery pick after his stellar sophomore season – the Orange is riding high with the 6-foot-2 Ennis running the offense.
He also ranks third on the team in scoring (11.9), second in minutes (33.6), and tops in steals (48), a threat to eclipse the school record of 111 set last season by Carter-Williams.
“He’s making everybody else score,” said Orange guard Trevor Cooney, who has rediscovered his shooting touch with Ennis at his side, averaging nearly 14 points. “He’s always going to make the right play, and that makes us so much better.”
His dad said it all started 19 years ago.
“Within four days after he was born, we brought the stroller into the gym with him in it,” McIntyre said. “From that day, he never spent a day without basketball. He didn’t have a choice.”
However, he played lacrosse and spent time on Canada’s national game as a youngster. That helped hone Ennis’s basketball skills because he learned the nuances of the screen and roll.
“He really excelled at it,” McIntyre said. “At that time, he was way better in lacrosse.”
“We knew he was going to be great. We knew the potential and the maturity on the floor,” said Mark Taylor, Ennis’s high school coach at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey. “He never gets out of control and he’s the same off the court. That’s a rare thing – to have a player that calm and humble.”