CHICAGO (AP) — Jim Boeheim gave a kid a second chance to make a first impression.
Good thing, too, because this was the Syracuse coach’s original scouting report on senior point guard Michael Gbinije:
“I really didn’t think he was that good, to be honest with you, because he couldn’t shoot,” the Syracuse coach recalled the other day, “and he was not really a guard.”
On Sunday, three days after that assessment, Gbinije watched Boeheim cut down the net after a 68-62 win over Virginia that sent the Orange on their latest, and perhaps most improbable run ever to a Final Four. It would have been almost impossible with the skinny kid whose talents are still meshing but whose leadership skills are locked in.
“Hopefully,” Gbinije chuckled, “I’m good enough now.”
Gbinije’s game is a long way from elegant — at 6-foot-7 and 200 pounds, he’s ungainly for a point guard, a position he’s still learning — and until this senior season, you’d have to call his timing questionable at best.
Gbinije was good enough in high school in Richmond, Va., to help win a championship and make the all-state team his senior year, which brought a ride to Duke in the bargain. But as Boeheim’s first impression showed, Gbinije could handle the ball solidly enough for either guard spot, he was too light to anchor the middle, and not a good enough pure shooter to stick out on the wing.
He and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wound up confronting some of the same questions Boeheim had, and neither wound up happy with the answers. Gbinije was a Blue Devil in spirit most of his freshman year; he barely played, averaging less than 2 points and a rebound.
At the end of that season, he began leaning on Adrian Autry, the Syracuse assistant coach who mentored Gbinije in AAU basketball, to put him back in front of Boeheim.
The 71-year-old Syracuse coach couldn’t say enough about Gbinije’s leadership after the chaotic Virginia finish. Or for that matter, how he and Trevor Cooney, the other Orange senior guard, shepherded their young teammates through a season that began with an 0-4 mark in the ACC, got even tougher when Boeheim was forced to sit out a 9-game suspension, and nearly collapsed as Syracuse stumbled to a 1-5 close as they sat perched on the NCAA tournament field bubble.
“They’re the guys,” Boeheim began, nodding at Cooney and Gbinije to his right on the podium. “Even in a game like tonight, when Mike wasn’t shooting well, he kept making plays. He kept getting in the lane and making plays for people and making great defensive plays on the other end.”
Gbinije finished with 11 points and 4 rebounds, though tellingly, he also had six of Syracuse’s 10 total assists. Cooney produced 8 points, 3 assists and 2 rebounds. Neither player’s line reflected their actual value on the this night, though, as teammates used to taking their cues from the pair didn’t panic even as the Orange fell behind by 16 early in the second half.
“We had stretches through the season where we couldn’t buy a win, and through that whole time, no one was really getting on each,” Gbinije recalled. “Everybody was positive, and as teammates, when guys like Trevor and me were doing things to stay upbeat, it spreads.
“No,” he finished, “everybody is happy and rolling.”
Gbinije could have given up a few times before things turned in his favor. It’s what made him a leader by example. The season he sat out after transferring to Syracuse, the Orange reached the Final Four and hardly seemed likely to get back either of these last two year.
“Adrian liked him,” was the answer Boeheim gave Thursday, explaining why he was willing — if reluctant — to give Gbinije the chance to make a second impression and remake himself into a point guard.
“Contrary to opinion, I listen to people,” Boeheim continued. “I have to listen to my wife. But I listen to people, and he was very confident, and he pushed it. Sometimes assistant coaches are wrong, and sometimes I’m wrong.”
And the Orange are still playing because of it.