For the second week in a row, the Syracuse men's basketball team is the unanimous pick as the nation's No. 1 team.
The Orange (23-0, 10-0 ACC) took care of Clemson with a 57-44 win Sunday at the Carrier Dome. The Orange have yet to lose a game, but against Clemson, the team did suffer a potentially debilitating loss.
In the first half, backup center Baye Moussa Keita limped off the court and was taken to the locker room with an apparent knee injury. Keita returned to the bench for the second half, but he did not get back in the game.
Keita sat out practice Monday, and his status is uncertain for Wednesday's rematch with Pittsburgh at the Petersen Events Center.
"I definitely feel like I'm going to be back soon," he told Donna Ditota of Syracuse.com. "I'm just going to take it game-by-game and see how I feel."
Some might say not having a reserve center who averages just two points and 3.6 rebounds in 15.8 minutes a night isn't a huge loss. They couldn't be more wrong.
Keita's impact on the game is not felt in the box score. He's not the most athletic player, and Syracuse fans will be the first to tell you that he's anything but an offensive force.
But what he lacks in offensive skill is certainly made up for with intensity, experience and leadership on the defensive end. The 6'10" center from Senegal is the only senior on the team besides C.J. Fair who plays meaningful minutes. His experience anchoring the 2-3 zone is unmatched on this team.
If Keita is on the shelf for any length of time, it would leave Rakeem Christmas as the only healthy center since DaJuan Coleman is out for the year and Chinonso Obokoh is a redshirt. Sure, Christmas has been stepping up his play lately, but he's not equipped to go the distance in games.
Christmas has a tendency to go for the block on the first shot-fake, and it has occasionally caused him to get into foul trouble. It happened against Clemson when Christmas picked up his fourth foul with 13:16 to go in the second half. With Keita out, Jerami Grant assumed the center duties for an extended stretch.
Grant practiced with the Syracuse centers Monday to give him a little extra experience should his services be needed again in the middle.
If Keita is unavailable, Christmas may have to scale back his aggression a little to avoid foul trouble. Fans have been clamoring for a more aggressive Christmas, so having him dial the intensity back at all would be counterproductive. He will have to play smart as teams will surely attack inside in an attempt to rack up those fouls.
And Syracuse fans shudder to think about what might happen should Christmas and Grant have foul issues.
If (and when) Christmas does hit the bench, Syracuse loses some size up front. With Grant sliding to the middle, it leaves Fair, Michael Gbinije and Tyler Roberson as the available forwards. Roberson is a freshman, so his inexperience will be a factor. Gbinije has played most of his minutes as a reserve guard, but he showed against Clemson he is comfortable on the back line as well.
Gbinije (6'7") and Roberson (6'8") both have the height to handle back-line duties in the zone. What they don't have, however, is Grant's length and athletic ability. Grant could easily get from the three-point line to the paint to cover inside and out.
With him in the middle and either Gbinije or Roberson running out to contest shots, shooters might get that sliver of daylight they need that wouldn't be there if Grant were challenging the shot.
Syracuse also could get hurt on the boards with Keita out. Grant (6'8", 210 lbs) leads the team in rebounding, but he isn't built to contend with opposing centers in the middle. Someone like Pitt's Talib Zanna (6'9", 230 lbs) could easily push Grant out of the way underneath to snatch a rebound.
For a team ranked outside the top 150 nationally in rebounding, every board counts. That's especially true for a team that plays zone, which leaves it prone to giving up offensive rebounds.
For now, Orange fans should follow Keita's lead and take it one day at a time. I'd be willing to bet Keita sits out against Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Sure, it would make it much harder for the Orange to escape the Pete with a win, but having Keita fully healthy come March is much more important than risking further injury in games in early February.
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