EUGENE — At last, Dylan Ennis will get his senior season.
Ennis was expected to be Oregon’s starting point guard last year after he arrived as a graduate transfer from Villanova, but he suffered a stress fracture in his foot in October that limited him to two games before he aggravated the injury and had season-ending surgery. Ennis coached and cheered from the bench during Oregon’s run to the Elite Eight.
“God-willing, I am healthy all year and really excited about it since I couldn’t play last year,” he said. “I have been practicing to come back and play with these guys another year and hopefully that is going to happen.”
Casey Benson started all 38 games at point guard for the Ducks and led the nation with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.9-to-1. He and freshman Tyler Dorsey were the only two guards in Oregon’s regular rotation last year and both averaged nearly 30 minutes per game.
The backcourt gets a boost with Ennis and freshman Payton Pritchard, a four-star recruit from West Linn.
“I was excited to play with Dylan last year but unfortunately he got hurt,” Dorsey said. “He is a big, physical guard who locks up on the defensive side. I can’t wait to get in the backcourt with him and Casey and Pritchard. It is going to be great at the guard spot having all these different players do different type of things on the floor.”
Benson, Ennis and Pritchard are point guards, but coach Dana Altman has often said such labels are unnecessary in his system.
“We play guards, we don’t number our players,” he said. “Our guards handle it more than the forwards do, but traditionally if you watch us play, if Dillon (Brooks) or Elgin (Cook) gets it off the boards, they are taking it and we are going. We expect everyone to handle the ball. Casey did handle it a lot last year, but Tyler handled it quite a bit too. That will work itself out. We have perimeter players and we’ve got inside guys and we hope to invert those from time to time to get mismatches out of different sets and have different guys handle it.”
With Dorsey expected to start, it seems likely that either Benson or Ennis will be in the starting lineup with the other coming off the bench for significant minutes. Benson and Ennis expect to be on the court together at times too.
“Coach realizes he can have two point guards at the same time and I love playing with Casey so it is going to be fun,” Ennis said.
While sitting out last season, Ennis helped mentor Benson during his sophomore season.
“Dylan and I have gotten to be real close since he got here,” Benson said. “It is awesome to have him back on the floor and I look forward to a great year.”
Oregon’s practices are more intense with the addition of Ennis and Pritchard.
“It is going to breed more competition,” Ennis said. “In games, we don’t worry about it as much because we have to go play as a team. In practice, we will all be competing so that is what I love about it.”
Ennis emerged as a vocal leader immediately during preseason practices last year and continued to play that role from the bench after he was injured while the Ducks searched for someone to speak up on the floor. Now the loudest Duck will be able to take the court.
“That is just my personality, I am always talking whether it is on or off the court,” Ennis said. “We have Casey, a great point guard who has taken a leadership role, and Jordan Bell has been here as long as anyone. Dillon Brooks has learned from what I did on the sideline, and he has been doing great since he’s been out. Chris Boucher is our other senior, so we have had a lot of guys step up to the plate and be more vocal.”
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Ennis, who showed off his biceps when introduced to the crowd during a scrimmage Saturday at Matthew Knight Arena, brings a physical style that allows him to drive through a defense before having to decide what to do with the ball.
“He’s a very good decision-maker,” Bell said. “He is so strong that when he gets in the paint he makes other teams help, so when they step over, he just throws it up to me or Chris and it is easy to just throw it in.”
Ennis likes his options above the rim after Oregon signed 6-foot-11 junior-college transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams and 6-10 freshman M.J. Cage to add to its collection of versatile big men, including Bell, Boucher, Brooks and Roman Sorkin.
“With the bigs we’ve got, I can just run in the lane and throw it behind my head and one of them will catch it and dunk,” Ennis said. “Then on defense, we are so long. A lot of our guards have length and coach will get mad if we get beat, but we know we have two or three guys that can block a shot from anywhere.”
Ennis played his freshman season at Rice before transferring to Villanova, where he sat out a redshirt season before averaging 5.1 points as a sophomore and 9.9 as a junior. His college career appeared to be over when his senior season ended early for the Ducks, but the school successfully appealed to get him a sixth season of eligibility.
“This just feels like another year of me playing basketball,” Ennis said. “It was great to get my sixth year back, but I prepared like I did every other year. We have so many returners, and we had the European tour, so we have guys who already know the system. I think we are right where we need to be.”
Ennis, who played just 21 minutes in two games last year, was cleared to return in time for Oregon’s four-game exhibition tour of Spain in August.
“That was big for Dylan to get a little of the rust off,” Altman said.
It also gave Ennis confidence that his foot is fully healed.
“In the summer, when you come off an injury you wonder ‘Is it OK?’,” Ennis said. “Now I don’t even realize I broke my foot.”