Luke DeCock

DeCock: Freshmen lead the way for Duke, Syracuse in marquee showdown

Duke's Jabari Parker (1) celebrates after slamming in two during the first half against Florida State at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.
Duke's Jabari Parker (1) celebrates after slamming in two during the first half against Florida State at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.

Jabari Parker came into the season touted as one of the best freshmen in the country, along with Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle, and the Duke forward has done nothing to disabuse that notion.

Yet Parker may not even be the best freshman in his own conference.

It may in fact be a matter of the semantic difference between “best” and “most valuable,” but it’s hard to argue Parker has had a bigger impact on his own team than Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis, who took over for a first-round NBA draft pick at the position and has, if anything, been an upgrade over Michael Carter-Williams.

It’s just another example of what a strange ACC season this has been, with the Duke-Syracuse game the pinnacle of the weirdness. Syracuse not only walked into the door and took over as the conference’s truly elite team, but this first meeting of the two at the Carrier Dome is the most anticipated game of the ACC schedule by such a wide margin that the two Duke-North Carolina games still pending barely register.

That’s partially because of UNC’s record, even as the Tar Heels show signs of improvement, but even if they were as good as expected (with or without P.J. Hairston) the novelty of Syracuse and Duke playing in front of more than 30,000 people, with ESPN’s GameDay on site, is hard to top.

Duke was expected to be Syracuse’s primary challenger before the season, and after a brief stumble, the Blue Devils once again look the part. The Orange remain unbeaten, such a rare thing this late in the season in this era of college basketball. And both teams are led by a freshman.

That’s less clear at Syracuse than it is at Duke, where Parker is the Blue Devils’ leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker, but there’s no question Ennis makes the undefeated Orange go. Syracuse returned three starters and a boatload of other talent from last season’s Final Four team, including preseason ACC player of the year C.J. Fair – but not Carter-Williams, who was a second-team all-Big East selection before the Philadelphia 76ers took him with the 11th overall pick.

Enter Ennis, who received only one of 53 rookie-of-the-year votes at ACC media day (Parker got the other 52, and one of the 54 ballots was left blank). He’s got good size (6 foot 2), always an asset in Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, and an amazing ability to take care of the basketball. His 5.4 assists per game are second in the ACC, but he’s averaging only 1.4 turnovers in 34.1 minutes per game. He’s also scoring (12.3 points per game) and thieving (2.5 steals per game).

It’s an enviable stat line for any point guard and a staggering one for a freshman, even one surrounded by as much talent as Syracuse has. But it’s really Ennis that has made all that talent work so well together.

Unlike most star freshmen these days, Parker and Ennis don’t know each other well. Parker missed his final go-round on the AAU circuit because of a foot injury, and Ennis is from suburban Toronto, not exactly the same kind of hotbed of hoops as the South Side of Chicago.

And that’s fine, because Saturday isn’t about Parker vs. Ennis. They share only their class year and their importance to their teams. They play different positions and fill different roles. Which one of them ends up being known to posterity as the ACC’s best – or most valuable – freshman won’t depend on what happens Saturday.

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