For the fifth straight season the Syracuse Orange have started their men's basketball season with a 10-0 record. The latest victory, which came Sunday against the St. John's Red Storm, 68-63, was one of the Orange's toughest of the season and helped the unbeaten squad remain the second ranked team in the nation.
At this point in the year, it is hard not to look back at preseason expectations and think, "man, I did not see this coming." Sure, the SU had a decent enough chance to snag 10 straight wins, but to do it in the fashion they have, is impressive.
One of the biggest reasons for the Orange's early-season success -- besides sophomore guard Trevor Cooney playing much better than we expected him to play -- is the play of freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, who tallied a game-high 21 points, dished out six assists and snagged two steals in Sunday's victory. The freshman's totals helped him improve his season stats, which feature him third in the team in scoring (12.3) and first in assists (5.0) and steals per game (2.6). Most importantly, Ennis is only turning the ball over 1.1 times a game, which has helped his turnover margin rank third nationally.
With all the talk surrounding freshmen this season, Ennis has quietly played his way into the discussion as the most important first-year player, which include stars such as Duke's Jabari Parker, Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, Kentucky's Julius Randle and Arizona's Aaron Gordon. The argument can easily be made Ennis is playing better than UK's top recruits Andrew Harrison and James Young, who coming into the season received more hype than Ennis.
In fact, Ennis' play has led to some college basketball pundits praising head coach Jim Boeheim for his ability to reload at the point guard position -- a key component to the Orange success over the past few seasons.
"It has almost become a mini-point guard U," said CBS' Matt Norlander about Syracuse on the network's Eye On College Basketball Podcast on Monday. "It has basically been since Eric Devendorf that Jim Boeheim hasn't had a reliable and talented collegiate/pro prospect option at point guard."
Norlander continued to talk about the importances of Ennis and previous Syracuse floor generals after pointing out the program's last four successful seasons.
"The point guard play is huge," Norlander said. "It is defiantly a factor and sometimes you have cliches and stereotypes but they're there for a reason and I always thought the point guard play means a lot in college basketball; and I think now more than ever, when the game is faster than ever, and it is becoming smarter than ever. You need capable guys running the one (position)."
(Note: Skip to 42-minute mark of the podcast to listen to the SU discussion, which includes a lot of praise of Boeheim.)
Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning, Norlander's co-podcaster, Jeff Borzello, moved Ennis into his Top 5 freshmen rankings saying:
Ennis might be more important for his team than any freshman in the country, as he is essentially the only point guard on Syracuse's roster. And he's been terrific, scoring, distributing - and not turning it over. He has 50 assists to just 11 turnovers this season, and is coming off a 21-point, six-assist effort vs. St. John's.
Norlander's and Borzello's points are solid and it isn't because it fits this column's narrative. Point guard play in this one position in basketball that can make everything else flow. If young talent doesn't have an experienced leader it isn't going to flow right away -- or maybe ever.
This could explain why so many teams with talented young players are struggling -- UK and Kansas are the prime examples -- while teams that do not have point guard issues are winning.
Just look at the top of the latest AP rankings for proof: No. 1 Arizona (T.J. McConnell -- 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), No. 2 (Ennis), No. 3 Ohio State (Aaron "freakin" Craft -- 5.2 apg), No. 4 Wisconsin (a mix of guards are finally making up for the loss of Jordan Taylor) and No. 5 Michigan State (led by maybe the best in all the land in senior Keith Appling).
There's no debating guard play was the Orange's biggest question mark heading into the season after losing an NBA lottery pick and the program's winningest player. Boeheim told everyone during the offseason the answer was Ennis, who was good. But this good? This is probably a bit more than what the Hall of Fame coach might have expected too.
The only hope is that Ennis' play continues to get better and in the end Syracuse fans are talking about another special freshman that helped the program earn another National Championship.