Onuaku forced to watch SU begin quest for title
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Syracuse center Arinze Onuaku sat in front of his locker Thursday and patiently answered questions he’d rather not hear.
He figures to do much more sitting the next few days.
The 6-foot-9 senior will miss Syracuse’s first-round West Regional game with Vermont (25-9) on Friday as he recovers from a strained right quadriceps muscle. His status is doubtful for a potential second-round matchup with Gonzaga (26-6) or Florida State (22-9).
“Of course, it’s disappointing,” Onuaku said. “This is what you work for every year. It’s just bad timing.”
Onuaku’s injury stems from a hard fall he took last week in Syracuse’s 84-71 Big East quarterfinal loss to Georgetown. Although Onuaku hasn’t officially been ruled out for the second round, Syracuse (28-4) is preparing to play its next two games without him.
“If we were able to win, whether he would be able to go Sunday, it’s doubtful in my mind,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “That’s really where we stand with him. He’s definitely not going to play [Friday] night. And that’s the only definite that we have right now.”
Boeheim also clarified conflicting reports that came from the school regarding Onuaku’s status.
School officials indicated last week that Onuaku might only miss a few days of practice. They gave a less optimistic report on Monday – the day after Syracuse received a No. 1 seed. The NCAA tournament selection committee gave Syracuse the lowest No. 1 seed, perhaps because of the uncertainty surrounding Onuaku.
“Friday we did the testing and thought there was a chance he could possibly get back to practice on Monday,” Boeheim said. “Sunday night it was obvious that he just wasn’t going to be able to make it back to practice. He’s getting better. To clarify, we never talked to anybody from the NCAA or the committee. I never did. The doctor never did. And our trainer never did.”
Considering how scary Onuaku’s injury looked at the time he fell to the Madison Square Garden floor, the fact that he could return at all is somewhat remarkable.
“I was very scared,” Onuaku said. “Any type of injury scares you. That’s the first time I went down like that in my career.”
Onuaku, one of 15 players in school history with 1,000 points and 800 rebounds, has averaged 10.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game this season. He has shot 66.8 percent from the floor and is on pace to end his career as Syracuse’s all-time leader in field-goal percentage (.648).
“He’s so physical and so strong out there in the middle,” Boeheim said. “He takes up so much space. He’s a big part of our defense. And offense, it’s the same thing. He’s a guy you have to account for. Sometimes some teams have to double-team him, which opens up things for other guys. He’s a very good low-post offensive player. And defensively, he’s a physical presence out there.”
Onuaku’s injury will seriously test the depth of a team that has used a seven-man rotation for much of the season, particularly if 6-9 forward Rick Jackson gets into foul trouble. Jackson has fouled out of three games this year.
Kris Joseph, a 6-7 sophomore forward, probably will replace Onuaku in the starting lineup. Joseph, the younger brother of Vermont forward Maurice Joseph, has earned a reputation this season as one of the nation’s top sixth men.
Joseph’s presence should allow Syracuse to continue to have one of the nation’s top starting lineups even without Onuaku. Boeheim estimated that about 60 or 70 percent of the time this season, he utilized a smaller lineup that had either Jackson or Onuaku – but not both of them – on the floor.
“When most teams lose a starter, they’re bringing in a guy that’s playing 15 to 20 minutes or so,” Boeheim said. “We’re bringing in a guy that played 30 minutes a game. So we think our starting lineup is fine. We just don’t have the depth.”
That lack of depth could force the Orange to depend more heavily on freshman 7-footer DaShonte Riley, who played a total of 13 minutes in Big East competition after showing some promise in the non-conference schedule.
Onuaku has been encouraging his younger frontcourt mate all week to get Riley ready for the biggest game of his life. Coaches and teammates have reminded Riley about running the floor, getting back on defense and going after each rebound aggressively.
“I’ll definitely be a little nervous,” Riley said. “Once I get up and down the court a little bit and get my first wind, I think I’ll do pretty good.”
Even without Onuaku, Syracuse shouldn’t have much of a problem avenging its 2005 first-round loss to Vermont, which has only one starter (6-8 forward Evan Fjeld) taller than 6-5. The troubles would come in the second round if Onuaku remains unavailable.
Gonzaga could create matchup problems with 7-foot center Robert Sacre and 6-8 power forward Elias Harris. Florida State, meanwhile, leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense (.374) by virtue of a big lineup that features 7-1 center Solomon Alabi, 6-9 forward Chris Singleton and 6-8 forward Ryan Reid.
Onuaku understands what’s at stake as he helplessly waits for his leg to heal. He already had undergone surgeries on each of his knees since arriving at Syracuse. Now, just as he is about to enter the final postseason of his college career, fate has intervened once again.
“The hardest thing is this is my senior year,” Onuaku said. “This is my team. Not being on the floor with them is tough. But I’m here regardless. I’ve been talking to the players all the time. That’s what I have to keep doing. If I’m on the bench or if I’m on the floor, they’ve got to be able to see me and hear me.”