SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) With one simple remark after losing to North Carolina, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim paid the ultimate compliment to Michael Gbinije when asked whether Gbinije was tired at the end of the game.
”He’s not coming out” of games during crunch time, Boeheim said.
As his final college season enters its stretch run, the fifth-year graduate student is in a good place at last. He has gone from bench warmer at Duke to go-to guy for the Orange (13-8, 3-5 ACC). At the midpoint of the conference season, Gbinije was averaging 17.4 points and logging an average of nearly 38 minutes a game, both tops on the team.
”The game became a lot easier,” said Gbinije, who has scored in double figures in 22 straight games, tops in the ACC. ”My IQ has gotten a lot better. I’m playing more confident, having more fun.”
Five years ago, Gbinije was a high school star for Virginia powerhouse Benedictine and opted to play for coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. But after too much watching – he saw action in only eight conference games and scored just 33 points his entire freshman season – Gbinije decided to transfer and chose Syracuse.
After sitting the 2012-13 season because of NCAA transfer rules but practicing with a Syracuse team that won 30 games and reached the Final Four, the lanky 6-foot-7 Gbinije began a steady climb to the top.
In 2013-14, he never started but played in every game, taking turns at guard and forward, and averaged 3.4 points with 41 assists and 17 turnovers. Last season, he began to display the talent that made him a top recruit in high school. Inserted into the starting lineup for the first time, he boosted his production to 12.7 points per game, hitting 49 of 125 from behind the arc to go with 107 assists and 64 turnovers, and emerged as a leader.
This year as the starting point guard, Gbinije has become the focal point of the Orange attack. And even with his impressive offensive numbers – Gbinije was a force in the first 10 games of the season, hitting 64 of 115 (55.6 percent) of his shots, 34 of 67 (50.7) from behind the arc – his defense has not suffered. His 53 steals lead the team by a wide margin.
”Mike has improved as much or more as any player that I’ve ever coached,” said Boeheim, who has accepted only a handful of transfers in 40 seasons.
”He came in as a small forward that didn’t handle the ball that well, didn’t shoot the ball that well, to be honest. There’s a reason he didn’t play (at Duke),” he said. ”Last year he really started to show what he could do,”
”I think he still didn’t get to where he is now because I don’t think he really believed `I’m one of the best players in this league,”’ Boeheim said.
Coach K can vouch that he is now.
In a home loss last year to Duke, which went on to win the national championship, Gbinije was 5 of 8 on 3-pointers in a 10-for-14 shooting display for a career-high 27 points. And in an important road victory last week over the Blue Devils, he had 14 points and a career-high nine assists, playing an integral role in helping Orange forward Tyler Roberson have a breakout game with 14 points and a career-high 20 rebounds.
After that impressive start to the season, Gbinije slumped once ACC play began as defenses focused on his every move for a team that has relied heavily on its perimeter game. When those outside shots stopped falling, he resorted to the easiest solution – five dunks on smooth drives through the lane in a win at Wake Forest.
As Syracuse prepared for a big game on Thursday night at home game against No. 25 Notre Dame (14-5, 5-2), Gbinije, a creative and unselfish passer, was back in form. Over the previous four games he was 24 of 43 (55.8) shooting, 7 for 14 from long range the past two. He’s also found some consistency at the free throw line, converting 15 of 19 over the past five games after struggling all season.
”It’s a great story, a transfer that has gone and reinvented himself,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. ”He is such a veteran, poised guard. He’s just so comfortable in the Syracuse system right now. He’s extremely confident. It’s a great challenge for us the way he’s playing.”
Added Orange freshman Malachi Richardson: ”Man, he’s been our guy this year. He’s like our LeBron. He’s making everything happen for us.”
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Freelance writer Mark Frank contributed.