SYRACUSE, NY—Before the start of Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku's senior day, Onuaku said the two of them shared a moment.
It was a moment 123 wins, one Big East Championship, two NCAA Tournament appearances, and a No. 1 ranking in the making.
It was also a moment 49 losses, two Selection Sunday disappointments, two knee injuries, and countless weeks outside the rankings in the making. But those losses humbled them; those tournament snubs and weeks unranked motivated them; and those injuries strengthened them.
Now, when Rautins and Onuaku finished their moment, the two fifth-year seniors took Jim Boeheim Court for the last time—and as the unquestioned leaders of perhaps the best team in the nation.
"They've been leaders since day one and pulled this team together," Jim Boeheim said. "I really cannot say enough about them."
Onuaku's development from a raw three-star recruit into one of the Big East's toughest centers to bang against in the post was a tough, but rewarding process for the senior center.
"When you come to college, you never think you are going to be a senior," Onuaku said. "As freshmen, you're worrying about playing time...Me and Andy hit the door at the same time as two underrated guys. We work hard, and the coaches say we can be great, so that's how we've been approaching it."
While Onuaku's development is impressive, the jump Andy Rautins made over the past five years is remarkable.
The local product from Jamesville-Dewitt High School (which is minutes away from the 'Cuse campus) entered SU as a one-star recruit and a continuation of his father Leo's legacy at Syracuse.
As a frail three-pointer shooter, minutes were hard to come by as a freshman and sophomore. But one knee injury later, Rautins strengthened his 175-pound frame by adding 20 pounds of muscle. His three-point shooting, defense, passing, and awareness on the court improved.
Gerry McNamara played with Rautins for one year but returned four years later as Rautins and Onuaku's coach.
"Andy especially has become such a vocal, emotional leader, and I admire that and what he's been able to do," McNamara said. "They are what Syracuse basketball is supposed to be about. That's working hard and epitomizing what you are supposed to be on and off the floor."
Rautins led vocally, but also by example. When the guard missed the 2007-2008 season with a knee injury, the drive he showed to better his skills and his body rubbed off on his teammates.
"I saw the fire in his eyes," guard Scoop Jardine said about his teammate's rehab. "He really, really, really dedicated himself to come back to do what he's doing right now."
Jardine missed last season with a hairline fracture but returned in much better shape with a vastly improved jump-shot. "I looked at Andy's situation and saw how he did it with the fire in his eyes, and that helped me out a lot. I told him today how much he really means to me."
While Scoop Jardine learned from Andy Rautins, Rautins learned from his classmate Arinze Onuaku, who missed the previous season with a knee injury. Onuaku returned stronger and no longer could be found late at night eating at Kimmel Dining Hall, the fast food capital of Syracuse University.
Instead Onuaku dedicated himself to a much healthier diet filled with fresh foods that allowed him to slim down but add muscle.
"AO is my guy," Rautins said of Onuaku. "We came in together, and we're leaving at the same time, too. There's no better situation in which I think I'd rather leave. There's no better person than AO. He's got great character; he works hard; and I really respect the kid."
And so Rautins and Onauku walked off Jim Boeheim Court one last time Tuesday night after defeating St. John's 85-66, but they walked off as Big East Champions.
They have accumulated five years of moments together, but the two SU seniors openly admitted they've got room for a few more they'd like to pick up one month from now in Indianapolis.
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