- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2016

CHICAGO — After a winding route, Richmond native Michael Gbinije has turned into Syracuse’s top player.

He went to Benedictine High School and committed to Duke. For a year, he played for the Blue Devils. Then, he transferred to Syracuse. Despite choosing to bring him in, Orange coach Jim Boeheim was not impressed.

“I had only seen him one time and I didn’t like him at all,” Boeheim said earlier in the week. “And then he went to Duke, and I really didn’t think that was — that he was that good to be honest with you, because he couldn’t shoot and he was not really a guard.”

Syracuse assistant coach Adrian Autry convinced Boeheim that Gbinije was worth a chance.

Autry was right. Gbnije averaged 17.8 points this season. He shot 47.3 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from behind the 3-point line. He’s the best player on a Syracuse team that has surprised throughout the tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett had more faith in Gbinije than Boeheim did at first.

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“We tried to recruit him real hard, so we know how good he is,” Bennett said. “He’s really been a key and led that team and taken them obviously to this point, which is special.”

Boeheim’s comments about Gbnije circled back to him. On Saturday, the senior was asked what his reaction was the first time Boeheim told him he didn’t think he was very good.

“Next question,” Gbinije said with a smile.

“I tell him that a lot in full — I forgot the word now,” Boeheim said. “Full disclosure, yeah. I wasn’t that good in English. But full disclosure, I told him that a lot the first year, I think. That’s fair to say, isn’t it?”

“That’s fair, yeah,” Gbinije said.

The season Gbinije sat out he worked to get in better shape. He needed to be better handling the ball, so he practiced that daily. Each year he has been on the floor since, his numbers have gone up. His field-goal percent is up 9.3 percent from his first season with Syracuse. His scoring average has grown by 14.4 points. He adds two steals, four assists and four rebounds per game. Boeheim is so high on Gbinije now, that he argued on Saturday that his value is comparable to that of ACC player of the year and Virginia point guard Malcolm Brogdon.

“I like Malcolm Brogdon,” Boeheim said. “I think he was the best player in the league this year, but I think you could make a case for Michael for being as valuable to his team as Malcolm is, and in fact, I think that Virginia has been able to overcome Malcolm having a bad game. We really can’t overcome Michael having a bad game. His numbers, what he’s done, speak for themselves. He led the league in steals, four rebounds, four assists, shot 42 percent from the three-point line, 47 from the field. He’s our best defensive player.

“Those awards — and I tell the players this all the time. The Player of the Year, first-team league, always goes to the top-four teams in the league. That’s where it goes. And I don’t have a dispute with that at all. But Mike has been as valuable as anybody this year for his team.”

Gbinije was an offensive problem for the Cavaliers in their lone game against Syracuse this season. He scored 24 points on 13 shots. Of his 13 shots, nine were 3-point attempts. His four steals countered his four turnovers. Only three other times this season did Gbinije score 24 points or more.

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