This year's freshman basketball class—the most talented since Kevin Love, Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley arrived on college campuses in 2007—loomed larger than life before any of its members even made a layup. Duke's Jabari Parker, Kentucky's Julius Randle and Kansas's Andrew Wiggins drew outsized expectations because of their NBA potential, which quickly dominated the narrative.
But judged by his production, there's been no better freshman—and no better point guard in any college class—than Syracuse's Tyler Ennis. The 6'2", 180-pound floor general from Brampton, Ont., has led the No. 1 Orange to a 24--0 record, the best start in school history, with deft passing and opportunistic scoring. "There are guys who run faster, jump higher and shoot better," says Miami coach Jim Larranaga, whose Hurricanes lost to Syracuse twice this season, "but there's no one who has more poise and more control than [Ennis]."
Need proof of his late-game onions? In the final five minutes and in overtimes of games in 2013--14, Ennis has had 22 assists and just one turnover, and he has made 41 of 49 free throws. In the final five minutes of one-possession games (three-point difference or less), he has hit eight of nine from the field, including the 35-foot runner that shocked Pitt at the buzzer last week.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim compares Ennis's late-game moxie to that of Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara, who powered Syracuse to the national title as freshmen in 2003. Adds assistant Mike Hopkins, "An NBA guy told me once that point guards get paid like coaches, winning games. That's what Tyler does."
In the Orange's epic 91--89 home win over No. 17 Duke on Feb. 1, Ennis recognized that Blue Devils' 6'5" guard Andre Dawkins was matched up with 6'8" forward Jerami Grant in overtime. Ennis delivered three assists to Grant, all for dunks. In one of the most hyped games in college basketball this season, Ennis's facial expression changed as much as one on a sculpture at Madame Tussaud's.
Ennis's own statistics are far from modest: He's scoring 11.9 points per game, ranks fifth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.89) and is No. 28 in steals (2.17). But his defining traits are his composure and his feel for the game, skills that his father, Tony McIntyre, attributes in part to his son's having played box lacrosse while growing up in Canada. Box lacrosse, played on a much smaller field than traditional lacrosse, has more hitting and requires quick, precise movements.
That carries over to the basketball court, where Ennis thrives in tight spaces on screen-and-rolls and deftly reads defensive rotations. His toughness has translated too. Ennis played defenseman in box lacrosse and once got into a fight with Max Domi, son of former NHL enforcer Tie Domi. "Being one of the smaller guys out here," Ennis says, "you have to be willing to take a hit."
After reaching the Final Four last season, Syracuse's backcourt lost Michael Carter-Williams (the front-runner for NBA Rookie of the Year) and four-year starter Brandon Triche. Yet somehow the Orange are even better. Sophomore guard Trevor Cooney is hitting 43.3% from three-point range, and senior All-America candidate C.J. Fair, a 6'8" small forward, is averaging 16.7 points.
Vice President Joe Biden, a Syracuse law school grad, called Ennis after his game-winner at Pitt. Could a congratulatory call from Biden's boss be coming in April? The Final Four appears well within reach again, as the Orange are on target to get a No. 1 seed and play their first four NCAA tournament games in Buffalo and New York City. Ennis might not be invited to the green room at the NBA draft in June—though he could still play his way into lottery consideration—but there's been no more valuable freshman in any college locker room.
Dan Patrick is in Sochi cohosting NBC's Winter Olympics coverage. He will return next week.
Judged by his production, there's been no better freshman—and no better point guard in any college class—than Ennis this season.
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MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PATRICK)