By David Mackey |@davidmackey_iii
Sports Capital Journalism Program
CHICAGO – Syracuse guard Michael Gbinije has led the Orange with averages of 17.8 points, 4.4 assists and 2.0 steals this season. He has scored in double digits in all 34 games and topped 20 points 12 times. In the three NCAA tournament games that have taken the Orange to the Midwest regional final, Gbinije has averaged 17.7 points. He converted an offensive rebound into a key layup Friday night to put the Orange ahead of Gonzaga, 61-60, with 22 seconds remaining.
After that decisive layup led to Syracuse’s 63-60 victory and a spot in the Elite Eight, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim spoke highly about his point guard.
“He has been great for us all year,” Boeheim said. “Of all the players I’ve ever coached, he’s the most underrated player that I’ve ever coached.”
Those are strong words coming from Boeheim as he approaches the end of his 40th season as the Syracuse coach. He has coached all but one of the school’s 22 first-round picks in the National Basketball Association draft, including Derrick Coleman, Carmelo Anthony, Billy Owens, Rony Seikaly, Michael Carter-Williams and Dwayne (Pearl) Washington. Gbinije has experienced major success since transitioning to the point guard position last year, but the road it took for him to get to this point was turbulent.
In 2011, Gbinije started his college basketball career at Duke where he played 19 games as freshman and averaged only 1.7 points. In 2012, Gbinije opted to transfer to Syracuse after visiting the university. He explained the reason he decided to part ways with Duke.
“Coming out high school I wasn’t ready,” Gbinije said Saturday in his team’s dressing room, the day before the regional final against Virginia. “When I got to Duke, I realized my stamina was really bad and my decision making was bad. After not playing, I had to take a step back and figure out what I really wanted out of the game of basketball.”
When he decided what he wanted from basketball, something drew him to Syracuse University.
“When I visited, I felt like Syracuse was home,” Gbinije said. “It was a good fit for me and my skill set. At the time I knew Trevor Cooney and Rakeem Christmas in high school and our assistant coach, Adrian Autry, coached my AAU team, so I felt comfortable with my decision.”
Gbinije has said he chose to wear uniform number 0 because that represented the number of chances he had left. What Gbinije didn’t know was that he would experience turbulence from that point of his career. When he arrived at Syracuse, he had to sit out for the 2012-13 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Then in 2015, the 6-foot, 7-inch forward had to switch to the point guard position on short notice. Gbinije recalled his reaction to hearing the news from Boeheim: “At the time it was Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche in the backcourt. I remember coach just telling me during practice to run the point, so I got thrown into the fire against guys like Mike and Tyler Ennis, but it helped me become a better player.”
Gbinije had never played point before he switched to the position, so his confidence was low. He had to work on a lot of things that held him back at Duke such as stamina and footwork.
“At the beginning I was shaky,” “Gbinije said. “I had some silly turnovers, picked up my dribble a couple of times. It was a new experience for me. I had stamina issues as well. Also, I worked on my stamina by jogging more and taking up boxing. A guy I worked out with helped me with my footwork and he helped me get from Point A to B a lot smoother. He helped me play stronger. I started to play more under control, which resulted in me being more explosive at the position.
Gbinije lacked confidence and struggled early, but he started to see his practice, determination and hard work pay off early this season in Syracuse’s 79-66 win over St. Bonaventure on November 17 at the Carrier Dome. It marked Gbinije’s second game as Syracuses’s starting point guard. He led the team back from a 10-point second-half deficit with a game-high 23 points, six assists and three steals.
“That game was a defining moment for me,” Gbinije said. “It showed my hard work paid off and my coach had confidence in me playing the position.”
Boeheim didn’t always have confidence that Gbinije would excel at point guard.
“Well, the first year he was barely a forward,” Boeheim said. “He wasn’t really even a 2 (shooting guard), so he worked in his first year coming in very hard on his ball handling and shooting. Then the first year he was able to play, we used him almost all at small forward and some at 2, but he didn’t have point guard skills. But he worked on it, kept working on it.”
It hasn’t been easy for Gbinije to meet the expectations of his coach. Many times they were not on the same page, so Gbinije would get called out on his mistakes very often.
“It was tough,” Gbinije said. “You go from not playing to a new school and system. Then you go to coach, who’s yelling at you, and you just got to remain tough mentally and physically. I was able to get through the beating. What’s the saying? What doesn’t kill makes you stronger.”
Gbinije has been named second-team all-district by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Hearing what Boeheim said about his star player Friday night, their relationship is in a better place than it was in the past. Gbinije’s road started with turbulence, but now he is reaping the benefits of his labor.
“I think our relationship has grown this past year,” Gbinije said. “I’m grateful he gave me that second opportunity that I needed, especially being able to transfer to a high-level program again. I’m happy he decided to put me at the point.”