By ALEX KLINESpecial to ZAGSBLOGSYRACUSE, N.Y. — Coming off their first true tests of the season en route to winning the Maui Invitational, the No. 4 Syracuse Orange had another one ahead of them in the team whose season they spoiled last season with a 61-50 win in the Sweet 16.
On the shoulders of freshman point guard Tyler Ennis and redshirt sophomore shooting guard Trevor Cooney, the Orange knocked off Indiana, 69-52, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge to keep them undefeated on the year.
Syracuse (8-0) has now beaten Indiana five times in a row.
While the team performance was impressive in general, the play of Ennis and Cooney, who have not received attention around college basketball nationally like others, was the deciding factor. The two complement each other’s game on the court and made a major statement with 15 NBA scouts watching on.
“Those kids have really played well,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said following the victory. “One is a first-year player and the other guy didn’t play a lot last year. I don’t think you could ask them to play on a higher level than what they played. It’s really amazing the level they have played. They have really picked up the whole team. I don’t think you can say enough about the way they played this year.”
Both started their college careers off slowly as they were in different positions. Ennis came in knowing he would run the show, but struggled to find his true niche at the beginning of the season. Yet he showed in Maui, as well as on Tuesday night, that he can make his team better by scoring, distributing and crashing the boards to start a fast break.
Cooney, on the other hand, came out of Delaware as one of the best players in the state, but wound up redshirting his freshman year, and getting limited time last season. Things changed when he became one of the focal points in Syracuse’s offense this year. Cooney started off the season red hot by hitting seven three-pointers to accumulate 27 points in the first game of the season. After a variety of performances, his consistency is there and he has become a go-to guy for a deep group.
“They [Indiana] are a really good defensive team,” Cooney, who had 21 points off of 6-of-12 shooting, said afterwards. “They are going to come out and pressure you and really get up in you. You just have to look to attack and keep your head up. When you have that, it is going to open up driving lanes for other people. I thought Tyler [Ennis] and I did a great job of that tonight.”
After making just 28 of 105 3-pointers last season (27 percent), Cooney has made 26 of 55 3-point attempts this year or 47 percent.
Ennis, the former St. Benedict’s Prep star, added 17 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds to the equation. The two come from different birth years, countries, states, upbringing, high schools, AAU teams and much more, yet their chemistry is notable eight games in.
In any basketball setting, the point guard and shooting guard need to be on the same page. For Ennis – a newcomer – and Cooney – a flower ready to blossom with proper care – the coaching staff stressed just that.
“The first day I got here, I’ve been bonding with Trevor,” Ennis remarked. “Coach G-Mac [Gerry McNamara] and the coaches have made sure me and him have a relationship on and off the court. We play together every day. I kind of know his spots and where he’s going to be and where he likes the ball.”
This has greatly benefited both players as Ennis makes Cooney look good, and vice versa. Despite their youth, the duo adds a new presence to Syracuse basketball that was needed with first-team preseason All-American C.J. Fair being the other main scoring contributor.
With more chemistry being created day in and day out, the No. 4 Orange can only get better going forward, as can the draft stock of Ennis for next year, and possibly even Cooney by his senior year as he continues to show he has more tools in his artillery than a lone jump shot.
Photo: Syracuse Athletics
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.