Happy New Year, Syracuse basketball fans!
The Orange closed the book on 2013 with yet another undefeated nonconference run. This year was slightly different in that not all of the wins were against cream puffs. So far, Syracuse has victories over Minnesota, California, Baylor, Indiana and Villanova under its belt.
At 13-0, Syracuse starts 2014, and ACC (wait, not Big East?) play ranked No. 2 in the country.
A splendid start to say the least. With the calendar rolling over to a new year, let's take a look back at which Orange players stood out the most in nonconference play. These rankings will go beyond number-crunching and look at big plays in big moments, versatility and overall jaw-dropping performances.
Without further ado, here are Syracuse's five most impressive players so far.
Some might be surprised to see Syracuse's best player so low on this list.
But we knew what to expect from C.J. Fair coming into the season. He was the preseason ACC Player of the Year for a reason. At 17.4 points a game, he is again the team's leading scorer. And he's just percentage points behind Jerami Grant (5.5 to Grant's 5.9) for the team lead in rebounding.
What has been most impressive from Fair so far is his ability to make big shots when it counts. His jumpers down the stretch against Baylor and St. John's helped salt away victories for the Orange. He has never been in the spotlight before in his tenure, and now that he is, he hasn't shied away from it.
He's still leading the team in turnovers, so that keeps him down at No. 5. He sometimes tries to do too much and make a play that just isn't there.
But everybody in the gym knew the ball was going to Fair in those big moments, and he still made the plays. His senior leadership will be key as the Orange venture into their new conference.
Michael Gbinije's stats won't knock your socks off. He puts up 4.2 points and 2.4 rebounds a game in 15.2 minutes.
But it's the things he does that don't show up on the stat sheet that impress the most. First of all, he is not a natural point guard. But he has embraced his role as Tyler Ennis' backup, and he isn't nearly as turnover-prone (0.5 per game) as one would expect from someone learning the position on the fly.
He hasn't necessarily shown a willingness to shoot the three, but he has made five of his 11 attempts. So if he gets an open look, he can knock it down.
And at 6'7", Gbinije has shown the ability to play either guard spot in the zone. That length at the stop can be a startling change for opposing guards. He can also slide to the back line when necessary.
He just does whatever Jim Boeheim needs him to, and he does it all effectively. And when he makes plays like this, well, that's just gravy.
Jerami Grant joins forces with C.J. Fair to create a forward combo that can just devastate opponents.
Grant is the team's third-leading scorer and leading rebounder. And that's despite the fact that he came off the bench for every game except the opener, when he didn't play, and the most recent contest. He started against Eastern Michigan for an injured DaJuan Coleman.
If Grant can just develop a reliable jump shot, watch out.
There is no denying it anymore. Trevor Cooney is as dangerous a three-point shooter as there is in the country.
Cooney has made exactly half of his 86 three-point attempts on the season. He's tied for 32nd nationally in three-point percentage, but only two players ahead of him have attempted more threes.
After averaging 3.4 points a game and shooting 26.7 percent from deep last season, Cooney could very well be the nation's most improved player.
Jim Boeheim summed up Cooney's impact on games perfectly after the New Year's Eve matinee with Eastern Michigan, per Chris Carlson of Syracuse.com:
When they cheat to Trevor like this—and people are going to do that—it opens up so much. Jerami Grant went to the basket and the guy that would normally be there to help is standing in the corner on Trevor Cooney. We had a fastbreak, there was one guy back and he ran to the corner to guard Trevor Cooney. Jerami (Grant) ran down the middle to get a dunk. If they're going to play him like that it opens up all these other things.
As if there could be anyone else topping this list.
The Orange simply wouldn't be where they are without the stellar play of Tyler Ennis. The freshman point guard has helped Syracuse make a seamless transition from Michael Carter-Williams at the 1.
Ennis can affect the game in so many different ways. Need him to score? He poured in 21 against St. John's and 20 against Villanova. Need him to facilitate and get others involved? Ten points, nine assists against High Point. Zero points, nine assists against Eastern Michigan.
And his teammates love playing with him. He looks to pass first and foremost, and nothing illustrates that more than his behind-the-back dish to Jerami Grant against Eastern Michigan.
Combine his assist average (5.4) with his steals (2.7, tops on the team) and compare it to his turnovers (1.2), and you can see how well the kid takes care of the ball. Nothing seems to rattle Ennis, and he has the same demeanor whether Syracuse is up 10 or down 10.
If Ennis continues to improve, the sky is the limit for this team.