SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) – After Syracuse lost in the Final Four last spring, coach Jim Boeheim knew a lot of work lay ahead for the team’s first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Most pressing of all would be replacing the backcourt of Brandon Triche, a four-year starter who graduated, and sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams, a lottery pick in the NBA draft now starring for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Boeheim had few options for point guard, with freshman Tyler Ennis the only true candidate. Trevor Cooney, a redshirt sophomore who played sparingly last season after sitting out a year, was tabbed for shooting guard.
Eight games into the season, that backcourt has excelled beyond expectations, and even Boeheim is a bit surprised about what has unfolded as his unbeaten team has risen to No. 4 in the rankings.
“I don’t think you could ask for them to play at a higher level than what they have played,” Boeheim said. “It’s really been amazing. They’ve really picked up the whole team.”
Cooney is second to C.J. Fair on the team in scoring, averaging 15.1 points, and he’s shooting an impressive 47.3 percent (25 of 55) from beyond the arc. The quiet, unassuming Ennis ranks fourth on the team in scoring at 12.4 points and is averaging 5.1 assists.
“He is a great point guard,” Cooney said. “His eyes are always up. His head is always up, and he is looking to make the right play no matter what. He makes our job a lot easier. All we have to do is find the open spots and he will find us.”
Just as important, Ennis’s assist-to-turnover ratio has been stellar – 41 assists with only nine turnovers – while he has logged 32.5 minutes a game, and he’s been productive on the boards. In Syracuse’s 69-52 home win over Indiana on Tuesday, the 6-foot-2 Ennis had a game-high seven rebounds – one more than 6-10 Noah Vonleh, the Big Ten leader.
“I think he flies under the radar a little bit,” Cooney said. “I think it’s because he’s a point guard and not as tall, but the impact he has on this team is huge.”
Fair added that “he’s playing like the point guard we need him to be, and he is making big plays when it counts.”
Triche was a burly 6-foot-4 and Carter-Williams a lanky 6-6 with a sweeping arm span, nice complements at the top of Boeheim’s signature 2-3 zone defense. Carter-Williams had a school-record 111 steals last season, and Triche had a career-high 50, not to mention all the passes the two deflected.
Ennis and Cooney have proved worthy successors there, too. Ennis leads the Orange with 24 steals, three more than his backcourt mate. Against Indiana, they each made four on a night when the zone limited the Hoosiers to just 13 shots in the second half, the fewest in a half by an opponent in the Boeheim era, which began way back in 1976.
A reluctant shooter at the start of the season, Ennis has hit his stride offensively in the past four games, averaging 17 points, to put his name among the best freshmen in the nation. He scored 28 points, the most on the Orange this season, against California in the Maui Invitational.
“I started off a bit slower than the other guys, but that’s expected being a freshman point guard of a top-10 team,” Ennis said. “If we continue to win and play well, the personal accolades will come to everybody. But I’m not worried. I try and stay away from the articles about the other freshmen, but I watch ESPN and see the freshman focus, and it is motivating for me because I know I can play at their level.”