Big Least: Syracuse Claws Past Villanova Before 28,135

This is that pretty Ennis floater I was telling you about. - Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

In their first meeting since the breakup of the ‘old’ Big East, the Syracuse Orange hosted the Villanova Wildcats in a nationally televised matchup of undefeated and top ten-ranked teams.

It was a sometimes heated and physical battle that saw Syracuse claw back from a 25-7 first half deficit, featuring a technical on Nova that gave SU a six-point possession and a flagrant 1 foul on Jerami Grant after a Wildcat headbutted him in the elbow. Eventually the Orange took control in the second half and scratched out a 78-62 win that was very much the cliched ‘closer than the score would indicate’.

Here’s my courtside report card on the Orange’s hard-fought victory:

Head of the Class

Tyler Ennis: Some people are just good at difficult things. Neurosurgeons. Piano virtuosos. Trapeze artists. Tyler Ennis is good at scoring against people much bigger and more athletic than he is.

I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t completely aboard the Ennis bandwagon as late as a couple of weeks ago. He threw up a three point, four foul groaner vs. Binghamton that had me scratching my head. But Hallelujah, I have seen the light! Ennis was all over the place on Saturday, in a good way. Statistically speaking he had a nice outing – 20 points on 6-14 from the floor (8-11 FT), 4 rebounds, 2 assists in 37 minutes. But the numbers don’t tell the entire story. Forced to shoot more than perhaps he’d like due to Villanova’s aggressive trapping defense, Ennis was able to exploit the gaps and get to the rim with impressive frequency. He was able to finish too, busting out a nice finger roll layup on one drive and a short lefty floater on another that reminded me favorably of former SU great Sherman Douglas.

Because he typically isn’t the most athletic guy on the court, Ennis has developed the ability to change gears while still attacking the rim that keeps his opponents off balance. He was asked about that after the game, and said “Growing up I wasn’t as fast as everyone else, so I had to find a way to get to the basket.” He told me that the quirky little moves he is starting to show off come from that relative deficit of size and speed, and even his teammates break his chops about it. “Jerami (Grant) said I don’t do crossovers,” Ennis said when talking about a particularly nice drive to the rim, “so now I get to rub it in.”

Passing Grades

Trevor Cooney: Saturday was the seventh game this season that Cooney has made five or more three pointers. He had exactly one all of last year, vs. Monmouth. He shot well on Saturday, too – 5-9 overall and 5-8 from three (plus 6-6 from the line) for 21 points to lead the Orange in scoring. He added three steals, and SU’s 20-0 second half run was triggered when Ennis and Cooney ramped up their defensive energy on the perimeter (“Forcing them into some tougher shots”, he told me) and started to push the pace. That aggressive pace helped to jumpstart a lethargic Orange offense that didn’t crack double-digits until the 10:46 mark of the first half.

Free Throw Shooting: Let’s all say it together – Free Throws Matter. Villanova committed 27 fouls, which led to a healthy 35 free throw attempts for Syracuse. They responded by canning 29 of them for a crisp 82.9% efficiency. That’s a pretty good mark for anyone, let alone a team like SU that has struggled from the line for the past 30 years. Looking down the box score, SU had C.J. Fair at 5-6, Cooney at 6-6, Ennis at 8-11, Jerami Grant 7-8, Michael Gbinije 2-2 and Rakeem Christmas 1-2. If SU can remain aggressive with the ball, they should expect to get to the line. If they make their free throws, it will be really hard for other teams to slow them down.

Stay After School

Perimeter Defense: Villanova built their 25-7 first half advantage on the back of lights-out three-point shooting, hitting their first four and five of their first six. They cooled off when SU started to expand its defense, finishing at a blustery 10-31 (32.3%), and only forward James Bell (25 points on 6-12 from three) did much damage after that. It seems to me that it will take a white hot shooting performance from an opponent to upset the Orange, and there are a couple of ACC teams on the horizon that could heat up. But SU’s zone seems to be able to respond in these types of situations. Saturday’s effort is a prime example.

Team Passing: Of their 21 made field goals, the Orange assisted on only nine. That says to me that there was a whole lot of four guys standing around watching one guy try to get himself a shot. However, in this case, it did seem to work. Jim Boeheim called a handful of isolation plays for Fair, and he responded with some tough buckets in the first half when the team needed a spark. Boeheim also said after the game that Ennis was forced to take the ball to the rim when Nova’s defense wouldn’t leave SU’s perimeter shooters like Fair and Cooney, and Ennis responded with his 20 points. So it’s a catch-22. In the long run I’d rather see more ball movement and more assisted scores, but in this case I suppose the Orange took what was given to them and made the most of it with some spectacular individual plays.

Final Score: A

This game was everything it was expected to be. Two highly-ranked (former) conference rivals playing in front of a big crowd (28,135, tops for college hoops on campus this season) on a national TV stage. The Orange faced their biggest test of the season, and after stumbling a bit out of the gate they came roaring back for a huge win. These are the games that prepare a team for the rigors of a conference schedule, and hopefully a deep run into the postseason. It’s good to see SU get such a nice win, especially at the expense of a longtime adversary.

Tyler Ennis speaks to the media following the game:

For a more detailed recap and commentary on the game and Boeheim’s postgame news conference, visit my Twitter timeline by clicking here.
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