Students remain on break, temps dipped to single digits, and tipoff was after 9 p.m. So even with undefeated and second-ranked Syracuse in town, Cassell Coliseum offered negligible homecourt advantage to Virginia Tech on Tuesday.
But when freshman Ben Emelogu’s excuse-me bank shot from near the free-throw line drew the undermanned and undersized Hokies within four points early in the second half, the half-empty arena showed some life.
Might Tech actually make Syracuse sweat in its ACC road debut? Could the Hokies make enough jump shots over top of the Orange’s renowned zone defense? And would Syracuse’s heretofore unflappable freshman point guard, Tyler Ennis, play like a rookie?
No on all counts.
Ignited by Ennis, the Orange buried the Hokies during the final 14 minutes of a 72-52 victory, looking every bit the part of ACC and national contender.
Like many college teams, Syracuse (15-0, 2-0) lacks a dependable low-post presence, particularly on offense, but its perimeter of Ennis, senior C.J. Fair and sophomores Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant is stellar. Each of the four scored in double figures Tuesday, combining for 53 points and 20 rebounds.
Rated among the nation’s best point guards while at St. Benedict’s High School in Newark, N.J., Ennis burnished his ever-growing reputation with a nearly spotless line of 13 points, seven assists, two rebounds, one steal and one turnover. He made 5-of-8 shots, 3-of-6 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Like the team he quarterbacks, Ennis is more efficient than spectacular. After Tuesday, his assist-turnover ratio is an absurd 84-18, and he has not committed more than two turnovers in any game.
“Some freshmen are different from other freshmen, I guess,” Boeheim said when I asked him about Ennis earlier in the week. “He was always a steady player in high school, always a point guard, always had good coaching, has always understood the game.
“So I think he’s a different kind of point guard. Run the team, get the ball to other people first and then look to score second. A lot of point guards today kind of look to score first, and those guys tend to be a little more erratic.”
After Emelogu’s bucket made it 44-40, Ennis patiently maneuvered around a left-wing screen and hit a 3-pointer. Two minutes later, he found Fair in stride for a transition dunk that extended the lead to 50-40.
That sequence started a 16-0 run that ended any drama.
Tech (8-6, 1-1) entered the game leading the ACC in 3-point accuracy at 42.5 percent. But the Hokies made only 7-of-24 Tuesday (29.2 percent), and they missed 10-of-12 in the second half against the Orange’s 2-3 zone.
“It’s a lot different playing against your scout team and managers and things like that than it is against the actual real deal,” Hokies freshman Devin Wilson said. “That was kind of a big thing. We weren’t prepared for how athletic they were.”
Fair and Grant, both 6-foot-8 provide the most disruptive length from their wing positions.
Boeheim’s “zone is better the longer the players and the more experienced players he has,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said Monday on the ACC coaches’ media call. “This particular team, when you have your two best players on those wings in Grant and Fair, you have two of the better players in the country and two long athletes, and smart, covering that part of the zone.”
“I think your mental preparation with your kids (is as important) as much as any physical stuff you do, or X-and-O stuff you do,” he said. “Because playing against that over 40 minutes, there’s a different kind of focus as far as being good with the ball. …
“You gotta make double-digit threes. You gotta have your shooters looser than hell and ready to let it rip. We do some different kind of shooting drills leading up to that because I want them fearless.”
Ball security has been an issue for the Hokies throughout the season. Prior to Tuesday, they were committing turnovers on 18.6 percent of their possessions, 348th among the 351 teams charted by stats guru Ken Pomeroy.
With Syracuse second only to VCU in forcing opponents’ turnovers, Tuesday could have been especially bleak for Tech. But the Hokies had only eight giveaways, matching their season-low.
No, this game was more about the Orange’s superior shooting (46.7 percent to 36.7) and rebounding (41-25).
Ennis was the best player on the floor, but Fair, as usual, led Syracuse in scoring with 17 points. The MVP of the Maui Invitational, Fair is sneaky strong at a mere 215 pounds.
“He’s strong, stronger than people think he is,” Boeheim said Monday. “He’s always been a steady player, and this year he’s getting some more opportunities offensively and has really taken advantage of them. He’s just had a terrific start, just made huge plays for us all year long. That’s what we’ve come to expect from him. He’s been doing it since he’s been here.”
While Boeheim expected as much from Fair this season, he couldn’t know, though certainly he suspected, how Ennis would replace Michael Carter-Williams, the point guard of last season’s Final Four team.
“Our guard play’s been better than we could have hoped for,” Boeheim said. “We have young guards. We replaced a guy that’s averaging 17 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals a game in the NBA. We didn’t expect the guards to be able to do what they’re doing. We’re going to take it, we’re going to be happy about it.”
But not too happy. The Hall of Fame coach is far too seasoned to draw conclusions two games into an 18-game conference slog.
“This is like you just woke up in the morning and (it’s the) first two minutes out of bed,” he said. “We got a long way to go.”
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