Michael Gbinije gets first career start in Syracuse basketball's loss to St. John's

Syracuse basketball 2014-15: Syracuse vs St. Johns

Syracuse junior Michael Gbinije scored 13 points in his first ever college start on Saturday against St. John's.

(Dennis Nett | dnett@syracuse.com)

Syracuse, N.Y. — In his fourth year of college and in his 60th college game, Michael Gbinije finally got his first starting assignment.

• Box score

Gbinije, a 6-foot-7 junior, started in Syracuse's 69-57 loss to St. John's on Saturday night at the Carrier Dome. It was Gbinije's first starting assignment since the last game of his senior year at Benedictine College Prep in Richmond, Va., in 2011.

"It felt better. It felt comfortable,'' Gbinije said. "As long as I'm playing, that's all I really care about.''

Gbinije didn't start any of the 19 games he played in as a freshman at Duke in 2011-12. He transferred to Syracuse and sat out the 2012-13 season. He played in 34 games for the Orange last year, but never started. And he was filling the role of Sixth Man this season.

Until Saturday, that is.

Syracuse's Michael Gbinije drives past St. John's D'Angelo Harrison on Saturday.

Gbinije responded with 13 points, five rebounds and five assists. Gbinije's 17-foot jumper from just beyond the free-throw line capped a Syracuse rally that put the Orange ahead 53-52 with 6:49 left in the game.

"I'm just looking to stay aggressive,'' Gbinije said. "I'm just trying to make plays and get to the basket more.''

Gbinije is the third player to start at small forward for the Orange in just eight games this season. Tyler Roberson, a 6-8 sophomore, started the first four games before a strained abdominal muscle sidelined him against Loyola and Holy Cross.

B.J. Johnson, a 6-7 sophomore, replaced Roberson in the starting lineup. That allowed Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to keep Gbinije in his role as the Orange's versatile Sixth Man. Roberson returned for Syracuse's game at Michigan last Tuesday , but Johnson remained the starter.

Johnson, however, has struggled. He was 5-for-17 from the field and 1-for-7 from 3-point range in his three starts. Roberson didn't fare much better against Michigan and Boeheim said he was only going at half-speed on Friday before the St. John's game.

Boeheim rarely alters his starting lineup for a reason other than injury or suspension. But the long-time Syracuse coach inserted Gbinije into his starting five for the St. John's game.

Gbinije logged 37 minutes in the loss to St. John's, although he split his duties between small forward and point guard. He played small forward on defense, but took over at the point on offense when Boeheim benched Kaleb Joseph and put reserve shooting guard Ron Patterson in the game.

"I thought he did OK,'' Boeheim said of Gbinije. "He's not really a point guard. We're not as effective, but he did a good job. He was strong and physical. He did a good job. We tried to get a guy in there that could make a shot. Ronnie's certainly capable. He makes them in practice some days. He got great looks. He got seven looks. They were all good, wide-open threes. We thought that was the best chance we had.''

Gbinije earned the starting assignment. He's played well against the toughest teams on SU's early schedule. He has scored in double-figures in three of the seven games he has played in this season (he sat out SU's opener against Kennesaw State for unspecified rules violations). Those double-figure games were against California, Michigan and St. John's. All Syracuse losses.

That Gbinije is now starting represents a quick turnaround. In a recent stretch against Iowa, Loyola and Holy Cross, Gbinije had floundered. He made just four out of 17 field-goal attempts. He scored 10 points in 32 minutes in SU's loss to Michigan on Tuesday, setting the stage for his first career start.

"I guess that's how life works,'' Gbinije said with a shrug.