Tyler Ennis is the biggest name in the college basketball world this morning, and with good reason. In what was built up as the "Year of the Freshman," the Syracuse point guard has outplayed every other member of this ballyhooed rookie class, and been the most important player on an Orange team that sits at 24-0 and atop both major polls.
Wednesday night, Ennis put the biggest feather to date in both his All-American and Freshman of the Year caps by burying a running 30-footer to beat Pittsburgh at the buzzer. There hasn't been a more exciting play this season, and the entertainment value of the shot will only make the growing legend that is Ennis' clutch gene that much more of a larger than life entity. Not that the status isn't deserved.
In the final five minute of the second half or overtime in games where Syracuse has been either leading or trailing by one possession, Ennis is an unreal 8-of-9 from the field and 14-for-14 from the free-throw line. He has also handed out six assists and turned the ball over zero times (via ESPN). Those numbers would make Kevin Durant blush, and they're being posted by a freshman who wasn't in the top 15 of anyone's recruiting rankings 12 (or five) months ago.
Outside of the ending, perhaps the craziest thing about Syracuse-Pitt is that, all told, it might have been Ennis' worst game of the season. He made a couple of bad turnovers, he missed a couple of free-throws and he consistently struggled to finish at the rim. He also hit a game-winner that would have been meaningless had it not been for the heroics of his team's forgotten star minutes earlier.
When a senior who was a preseason conference Player of the Year finds himself being overshadowed by a freshman on his own team with a little more than a month to go in the regular season, there's typically either an injury or three months littered with disappointment to blame. That isn't the case with Syracuse's C.J. Fair, who leads the Orange in scoring and ranks second on the team in rebounding. His 16.7 points per game average is a career-best, and the team he captains is off to the best start in program history.
Blame the basketball culture's ongoing love affair with youth or the fact that point guard was supposed to be the biggest hole for this Syracuse team, but Fair has become painted as something of an understudy in a season where, statistically, he is the best player on the country's best team. He consistently garners adjectives like "efficient," "gritty" and "leader," while the standard superstar vernacular is reserved for his younger teammate.
The final 1:42 of Wednesday night's game served as an almost too perfect microcosm of Syracuse's season up to this point.
With the Orange trailing by six and in a "make a play now or go home" situation, Fair, who was just 4-of-12 from the field at that point and just a 29 percent three-point shooter for the season, buried a no-hesitation triple from the right corner to make it a one possession game. After a James Robinson miss on the other end, Fair went right back to work on Pitt's Lamar Patterson. He shook the Panther star with a quick crossover that gave him just enough space to stick a baseline jumper and cut the lead to one.
"In those situations, I got nothing to lose," Fair said after the game. "The momentum and the time is kind of against us. If I'd missed that shot, we were already in position to lose. But you can't be scared to take those types of shots. I saw an opportunity. Even though I was missing everything, I was confident enough to shoot that and then after that, it was over from there."
This, of course, set the stage for Ennis. The freshman buried two free-throws to give Syracuse its first lead in 35 minutes, and then followed that up with the play that will be on each and every end of the season highlight reel come April.
After the game, captain clutch just wanted to talk about his teammate.
"C.J.'s somebody we can count on at the end of the game," Ennis told the Syracuse Post-Standard. "He definitely closes games for us. He showed that throughout the season. We kind of expect him to make those now."
While the rest of the sports world continues to harp on the the most attractive storylines available, Syracuse seems to have a pretty solid understanding of the hierarchy that makes them so great.
It's awfully easy to ignore what everyone else is saying when you're 24-0.