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Syracuse’s road to the Final Four takes a detour through Brampton

Syracuse's Tyler Ennis goes up for a basket against Virginia Tech's C.J. Barksdale during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Blacksburg, Va.

Associated Press

Among the sea of orange-clad fans who gather inside the Carrier Dome on game day, one particular T-shirt has become the thing. Worn by packs of Syracuse faithful, the shirt reads ICE MAN, with a maple leaf centering the 'A.' It's a nickname they've adopted for their freshman point guard, the calm and cool Canadian, Tyler Ennis.

The 19-year-old native of Brampton, Ont., has mesmerized the college basketball world this season with late-game heroics – the kind that have compelled U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to call with congratulations. The poised first-year floor general is up for two player-of-the-year awards, the Naismith and John R. Wooden, and projected as a lottery pick in June's NBA draft. He's been central to Syracuse success heading into the NCAA tournament this week.

Up close, Ennis is nothing like the quiet and machine-like persona he projects during games. He's warm and conversational as he sits for a wide-ranging interview court-side after practice. He relays anecdotes about his long journey to this place – a large and frenzied dome where the squad is cherished as "New York's College Team" as the brass-wielding pep band rollicks and cheerleaders are tossed through the air. Banners hang touting the 2003 NCAA championship team, as does the No. 15 jersey of that squad's Carmelo Anthony, another star freshman.

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"We travelled to a tournament right here in this exact gym when I was a kid," said Ennis, looking up at the vast white bubble roof overhead. "There were about 10 courts full of kids playing in this building, and I remember the amazing atmosphere. It was the first college I had ever been to, and I loved it. I saw Jonny Flynn, a point guard here, back then. I thought, 'This is where I want to be someday.'"

His on-court maturity may seem surprising, but his game has been percolating for years – since his mother first rolled him into a Brampton gym in his baby stroller as his older brother played. He's the third-born in a family of six kids – four boys, two girls, all basketball players.

Their father, Tony McIntyre, coached them and eventually founded a club program that would travel around to face the toughest teenaged players in North America. The club's teams thrived with the Ennis boys and a long list of other exceptional Toronto-area players destined for big things, including Kansas freshman star Andrew Wiggins and first-round NBA draft picks Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson.

Young Ennis began playing in the basement of their family home with brothers Brandon and Dylan, five and two years older than him. The point guard who today seems quiet on court was "so hyper and chatty as a little boy," recalls his mother, Suzette Ennis McIntyre. He would often jump in front of the family video camera trying to host "Tyler TV," and the brothers spent their days battling one another on their Fisher Price basketball net.

"People would ask us what we wanted to do and we always said we wanted to play in the NBA," Ennis said. "I can remember teachers saying, 'Okay, but realistically, what do you want to do?' and I would be like, 'No really, the NBA.' It was totally unheard of that kids from Canada could play in the NBA or even get a scholarship, but we always really believed it."

As they grew, their games moved outside to a hoop by the curb, stopping intermittently for cars to pass. The competition between brothers was fiery – diving to the ground for loose balls, bloodying knees and elbows.

"Dylan and Tyler would go at it hard, and sometimes Tyler would kick the ball down the street and storm into the house, but we were always pushing one another to be better, and it was so much fun," said the eldest brother Brandon, who recently graduated after playing on scholarship at the University of the District of Columbia. "People say Tyler is very poised, and I think always playing with the older brothers helped build that."

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Ennis also played lacrosse, where he was a physical scoring defender who had his share of tussles. He honed skills that would help his basketball too: the ability to play with his head up and execute screen-and-rolls.

But basketball was the passion of the Ennis household. Noticing abundant talent in the Brampton area, McIntyre began taking his teams to tournaments in the U.S. and, along the way, established relationships with prep-school coaches who started recruiting them. His program, called Bounce, eventually joined forces with another Toronto-area Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) program called CIA. They became CIA Bounce, developing players from a young age and helping them navigate the complexities of playing at U.S. prep schools and colleges.

It was as part of CIA Bounce that Ennis teamed with the sensation Wiggins. Ennis ran the floor with a unique maturity, finding Wiggins in space for explosive scoring. Their team played in top AAU events against the best American teens, including the final of the 2012 Nike EYBL and Peach Jam, where they fell one point shy of becoming the first Canadian team to win it.

"He's a tremendous, tremendous basketball player," Wiggins said. "He's always in control of the game. And I knew he was going to have a good year. Because people always saw me, they never really noticed him, and his ability to score, pass, create … now he's just showing people what he can do, you know? He blew up. I knew he was going to blow up."

Brandon was the first Ennis brother to get a scholarship, then Dylan, who today is a sophomore guard at highly ranked Villanova. All the while, Ennis watched and learned about the process.

"I remember all the calls coming for my brothers and thinking, 'I can't wait for schools to be calling for me,' and it was so hard to be patient," Ennis said. "I had been asking to go off to prep school right out of eighth grade, but my dad kept saying I wasn't ready. When the time finally came, he said, 'If I'm going to let you go to prep school, you'll have to be a lot more vocal. You're not going to know anyone, and you won't have me or Dylan there to help you lead a team. You'll have to step up.'"

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While Brandon stayed in Brampton for four years of high school, Dylan left after Grade 9 for Wings Academy in the Bronx and then Lake Forest Academy in Chicago. Tyler chose U.S. prep school too, heading to basketball powerhouse St. Benedict's Prep, where he lived in the dorms of the all-boys Catholic school in Newark, N.J., hoping U.S. college scouts would notice him there.

"There's a 40-foot fence around the school and there's nothing there but books and basketball – you can't even walk to a corner store or go to the movies, so it wasn't easy for him," McIntyre said. "He was there for his last two and half years of high school, and he knew it was what he needed for his basketball development and for getting exposure."

During his first year there, the head coach left the job and several of his teammates transferred. He wanted out too. When new coach Mark Taylor took over, his first priority was convincing Ennis to stay by promising to build a new team around him.

They enlisted several new players, including a couple of other Canadians Ennis suggested. Ennis watched over the newcomers in the dorms and they pulled together as a group of kids all playing for individual college scholarships. Taylor had coached the likes of NBA stars Jay Williams and Andrew Bynum as high schoolers and said Ennis was "as good as anyone I've ever had at the high school level."

"I saw a kid steal the ball from Tyler once in a game, and then he clapped in Tyler's face," Taylor said. "Tyler didn't say a word or change his expression at all, but he went down and scored 11 points in about 30 seconds."

The day Ennis was inexplicably left off the McDonald's All-American list of top high-school players during his senior season, teammates told Taylor not to bother with a pre-game speech for their game that night because that news was motivation enough. They predicted a huge game for Ennis, and he delivered with a 54-point night.

St. Benedict's won 68 games over two seasons with Ennis running the floor, beating several of the top high-school teams in the U.S. and falling just short of winning a prep national championship. The team won two Class A state titles and Ennis was the 2012 Gatorade New Jersey prep player of the year.

Canada Basketball also brought him into the fold. Ennis won a bronze medal with Canada at the 2012 FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship. He then had an impressive run at the FIBA Under-19 World Championship, leading the tournament in scoring, including a 42-point performance in an overtime win over China.

Although he seriously considered Arizona, Louisville, Illinois, Memphis and UCLA, he committed early to Syracuse. He spent his senior year of high school meticulously studying video of Syracuse games, closely watching then-point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who was about leave for the NBA. Ennis knew that job would be his when he arrived on campus.

His first college season began with a pre-season tour of exhibition games in Canada. Along the way, star scorer C.J. Fair was sidelined with a minor injury and took Ennis aside. "He said, 'You have to take over this game, or we're going to lose,' and that was the moment that I knew I had the keys to this team," Ennis said. "That's when I got comfortable and started playing my game."

The youngster routinely jogs confidently up the floor chewing gum, never appearing nervous or hurried even with the game on the line. At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, he looks slight as he dishes skillful passes to the likes of 6-foot-8 Fair and 6-foot-9 Rakeem Christmas or slithers through opponents to the hoop himself.

"Tyler's been great under pressure throughout the whole season but goes at his own pace and he's not sped up by anyone," said Fair, a senior enjoying the best scoring average of his career. "He sees plays develop long before they happen. He has a great feel for the game, and he's very easy to play with."

He's also had uncanny get-up in the dying moments of tight games: delivering sure-fire dunk opportunities, coolly drawing fouls and sinking free throws, or pouring in key comeback points. His most memorable moment came against Pittsburgh, when, with Syracuse down by a point and time running out, he raced up-court, squared up just past mid-court and unleashed a last-ditch shot right on the money – a game-winning buzzer-beater that had one crushed Pitt fan yelping an audible "Are you kidding me?"

"Tyler, for us, he's so valuable. He plays 40 minutes in the [Atlantic Coast Conference games]. We can't win a game without him. Literally," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim recently told ESPN. "If you talk about the best pro prospect [in the ACC], it's [Duke freshman forward] Jabari Parker, but who's the most valuable to his team? … I don't know where we would be without Tyler Ennis."

Some nights, upwards of 12 to 15 NBA scouts visit the Carrier Dome, many with their eyes glued to Ennis. Syracuse won its first 25 games and spent much of the season ranked No.1, before suffering some recent losses. They rarely dominate opponents and have earned the moniker "Cardiac Cuse." When Ennis impresses, they flash his face on the video board with the words THE MENACE.

His parents and siblings often make the five-hour drive from Brampton to watch him play and snicker at his celebrity as he's stopped for autographs and photos everywhere they go. Fellow students often click his picture and tweet his every move.

"I could go on Twitter and know exactly where he is at every moment and what he's eating for dinner," McIntyre said with a laugh. "Sometimes the coaches ask me, 'Is he doing okay with all of this?'and I'm like, 'Yeah, he's worked really hard for this and he's really enjoying himself – he's doing great.'"

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