Since he's not considered a surefire NBA lottery pick the way Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins are, Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis hasn't received as much attention so far this season as his fellow fab freshmen have.
It's time to make room for Ennis in the freshman of the year debate, however, because he is putting together a season that rivals any of his more heralded peers.
In Syracuse's most anticipated game of the season against unbeaten former Big East rival Villanova on Saturday afternoon, Ennis displayed an impressive blend of poise, skill and decision making beyond his years. He scored 20 points and didn't commit any turnovers against Villanova's ball pressure, helping the Orange erase an early 18-point deficit by halftime and stay in front of the Wildcats the rest of the way en route to a 78-62 victory.
Ennis' performance against Villanova accurately reflects the impact he has made the past two months.
Not only has the former four-star recruit averaged 12.1 points and 5.4 assists so far this season, he also hasn't committed more than two turnovers in any game. What's more, his production has increased in big games, from his 21 points at St. John's, to his 28 points in the Maui Invitational semifinals against Cal, to his 11 points and nine assists in the Maui title game against Baylor.
That Ennis has risen to the occasion has been crucial for Syracuse because Jim Boeheim doesn't have another point guard on his roster. When Michael Carter-Williams turned pro after an unexpectedly strong sophomore season, Boeheim handed the point guard job to Ennis and told the freshman to expect to play 30 to 35 minutes per game.
On Saturday, Ennis showed why Boeheim had that sort of confidence in him, repeatedly drawing fouls on Villanova defenders off the dribble or burning the Wildcats for mid-range jump shots or acrobatic layups. Though he's not tall and rangy like Carter-Williams or lightning quick like Jahii Carson or a pure passer like T.J. McConnell, he's just a savvy point guard who changes pace masterfully, uses ball screens to his advantage and has a knack for knowing when the Orange need a bucket.
Between Ennis' ability to create off the dribble, Trevor Cooney's outside shooting and C.J. Fair's clever mid-range game, Syracuse had more than enough scoring punch to thwart Villanova's upset bid. The Orange also used their stifling two-three zone to make an already perimeter-heavy Wildcats team even more one dimensional.
All too willing to settle for threes early in the shot clock against Syracuse's impregnable two-three zone, the Wildcats made little effort to drive the ball into the paint or to attack from the high post. Thirty-one of Villanova's 50 field goal attempts were from behind the arc and the Wildcats only made 10 of them, four of which came in the game's opening five minutes.
It's no surprise that Syracuse is formidable again defensively because of the size and length of its frontcourt, but questions about the Orange's backcourt kept them from being ranked among the top 6-8 teams in most preseason polls.
With Ennis solidifying the point guard position and Cooney replacing the 3-point shooting of Brandon Triche and James Southerland, a potential weakness suddenly appears to be one of Syracuse's greatest strengths.