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The situation seems dire. Pitt has the basketball and a one-point lead. Less than two minutes remains. Syracuse University’s unbeaten streak is in serious jeopardy. It appears the majority of the 30,046 mostly orange-clad spectators who stuffed the Carrier Dome on this blustery winter day are about to go home disappointed.
Enter Tyler Ennis.
The unflappable Canadian teenager possesses an uncanny, almost Peyton Manning-like ability to immediately dissect defenses and make the right call. With SU’s primary scoring threats covered more closely than sweat on skin, Ennis eschews the pass, deciding to take matters into his own hands. The Orange point guard slithers through Pitt defenders for two layups—contorting his body like Gumby on one of the drives to the basket to avoid committing an offensive foul. On SU’s next possession, Ennis is fouled. He calmly sinks both free throws as the nation’s second-ranked team improves to 18-0 and grabs sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The precocious freshman saves the day again.
“He’s special,” says Gerry McNamara, the Orange legend turned assistant coach, after the 59-54 victory. “There’s no doubt about it. Tyler Ennis is special.”
Eleven years ago, we were writing and saying the same things about a freshman named Gerry McNamara. While shooting the Orange men to their first NCAA basketball championship with six three-pointers in the first half of the title game, G-Mac displayed a basketball maturity well beyond his years. This winter, Ennis has been following in his coach’s sneaker steps, displaying the wisdom and composure of a hoopster twice his age.
“He’s a mature player,” says Boeheim, the 69-year-old Hall of Fame coach who’s in his 38th season running the Syracuse basketball program. “Some freshmen are. Carmelo (Anthony) was pretty good (as a freshman). Gerry was pretty good. Some freshmen are capable, as freshmen, to be able to do those things, and Tyler is one of those guys.”
A friend of mine said Ennis reminds him of a young Derek Jeter. I think the comparison is a good one, because Ennis displays that same calm amid chaos that Jeter manifested as a 22-year-old rookie shortstop helping the Yankees to the 1996 World Series title. Ennis has a Jeterian knack for being in the right place at the right time, and he has a propensity for making game-changing plays.
Another similarity is their consistency. Like Jeter, Ennis gives you a solid performance every time out, and he rarely makes mistakes. Against Pitt, he finished with 16 points, three assists and just one turnover in 40 minutes of play. Nearly flawless box-score lines like those are his norm.
I’ve been following SU hoops since the mid-1960s, when Dave Bing elevated the program to new heights and got the ball of success rolling. And I’ve been covering Orange basketball since my days as a Newhouse School student in the mid-1970s. So I’ve seen all the great guards pass through—from Pearl Washington to Sherman Douglas to Adrian Autry to Jason Hart to McNamara to Jonny Flynn to Michael Carter-Williams. And I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a freshman guard at SU as unflappable as Ennis. Or one with a basketball IQ as high.
There are guys on that list I just rattled off who were faster and stronger and better shooters and passers and defenders than Ennis. But among freshmen, you’d be hard-pressed to find as complete a basketball player as this teenager from suburban Toronto.
“From the minute I started to work with him, I kind of got the feeling that he was a little bit different,” McNamara says. “He’s extremely, extremely intelligent, and he has great court vision. He knows where everybody is and where everybody is supposed to be, and he’s great at recognizing defenses on the fly and anticipating things.”
An honor roll student enrolled in SU’s Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, Ennis enjoys the cerebral challenges of the game. “It’s something that appealed to me early on,” he says. “I don’t know why. Maybe part of it was because I wasn’t as big or quick or strong as some of the people I was going against, so I had to try to outsmart them.”
McNamara can relate. Most of the time, he wasn’t even close to being the most athletic player when he took the court. But what he lacked physically, he more than made up for in grit and guile.
“You hear the cliche about a guy being a coach on the floor, but that’s what Tyler is,” McNamara says. “It’s a comforting feeling for a coach to be able to have a guy like that out there, because you know he’s on the same page as you and you know he’s going to get guys into positions where they’re supposed to be and make smart decisions.”
Ennis is adroit at getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers, but he’s also a playmaker himself, as he showed down the stretch against Pitt and in a tough road victory five days earlier at Boston College. He realizes that when the defense is overcompensating in its coverage of others, there’s an opportunity for him to make a play.
“Youth,” George Bernard Shaw once lamented, “is wasted on the young.” Ah, but if the famous Irish playwright had only met the likes of McNamara and Ennis, he might not have uttered those words. For youth clearly hasn’t been wasted on either of these young men. Boeheim and citizens of Orange Nation are hoping that history can repeat itself, that 11 years later, Ennis can be the wunderkind that McNamara and Anthony were and lead Syracuse to another national championship.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak’s 16th book, a collaboration with rock ’n’ roll legend Lou Gramm titled “Juke Box Hero,” is available at Amazon.com and in bookstores.
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