The whole Orange universe almost collapsed along with Arinze Onuaku early Thursday afternoon. When the beefy Syracuse center when down awkwardly against Georgetown in the Big East tournament, Orange Nation was squirming along with him on the floor.
Scenes of a Final Four dancing in the fan’s head got replaced by the notion of an early exit out of the only tournament that matters in March.
Not only had Syracuse dropped a game to the absolutely hated Georgetown Hoyas, its second loss in a row, but the Orange’s starting center, who had finally been playing up the level everyone expected, was potentially lost for the season.
We saw it with Robbie Hummel, and we’ve seen it in the past.
Those awkward knee injuries almost never turn out good, and they are usually season-enders.
The exhale from Orange Nation alone on Friday, when SU athletics released the most anticipated press release of the season, may have produced enough air to inflate the Carrier Dome, and maybe even pop it.
Arinze hadn’t done any serious damage to his knee, and had only re-aggravated that pesky Quadriceps muscle that has dogged him for his entire college career.
Word got out that Arinze would be at practice Monday, and by all accounts, will be ready to play in Syracuse’s likely Friday afternoon game in Buffalo, NY.
A re-assuring picture surfaced on Syracuse.com, of Arinze, with a rare smile on his face, mid-stride, without crutches, after practice on Friday.
All was right again in the world where Orange is the only color that matters.
The engines that drive the thoughts of a final four revved up to full speed again, and the Georgetown loss became a lot easier to swallow (more on that loss in the upcoming article, where we will preview The Orange’s path to the final four after selection Sunday).
The hated rival had won, but an integral part of one of the best Syracuse teams ever was going to be okay.
Collectively now: Whew!
The truth of it is, had Arinze gone down with a more serious injury, this Syracuse team may have very well kissed its final four hopes goodbye.
The grim reaper of season enders—the ACL tear—was suspected at first. Such a devastating injury, and especially more so for one of the Orange’s senior leaders.
It’s understandable too, that he was in such distress when it happened.
Anyone who plays or has played sports and has had a serious injury knows that when you tweak something that you have tweaked before, the world almost collapses on itself.
You immediately begin thinking that not only have you done some serious damage again, but perhaps it could be worse.
His squirming had to be a result of as much mental pain he was going through as physical pain.
Indeed, this quad injury had been one Arinze has battled non-stop. He had surgery on it one year, that being the reason he is a fifth year redshirt senior.
However, this was just a tweak, mind you a relatively serious tweak. But it wouldn’t require surgery and would be nowhere near season ending.
Arinze is a senior, and he is determined to help lead his Orange to the title this year. Nothing short of an ACL tear will stop him.
However, it is hard to believe he’ll be 100 percent at any time again this season.
But I think Orange Nation agrees: They’d much rather have a 50-80 percent Arinze, heck even a 10 percent Arinze, than no Arinze at all.
How many more times can you say Arinze in a sentence? He's that important.
The reason being, this Orange team may have been able to escape the first two rounds without him, but deep in the tournament, there’s no chance.
Let’s look at the scenario if Arinze had been out:
Kris Joseph would be starting. Not such a bad thing, the bad thing is though, that there would be absolutely no good substitution for the frontline of Wes Johnson and Rick Jackson and Joseph.
As it currently stands, Scoop Jardine and Joseph are the only two players coming off the bench this season.
And Kris is the only one who can come in for the frontline.
It’s been a healthy mixture all year, with Joseph Jackson and Onuaku (And to a much lesser extent, Wes Johnson, but he play’s about 38 minutes a game so it really doesn’t count) rotating effectively.
That fabulous rotation goes away if Onuaku is gone.
Scoop, Brandon Triche and Andy Rautins have had an effective rotation also, but there’s no chance in-a-place-that-never-gets-cold that any of them could handle playing the frontline effectively.
They’re guards, so you wouldn’t even expect it.
The best option Syracuse had coming off the bench would be little used freshman Dashonte Riley. And let’s just say, that’s not a terrifically good option.
Johnson, Jackson and Joseph each would have to have expected to play upwards of 35-40 minutes a game.
Rick Jackson, who has shown flashes of absolute brilliance this year, but has also shown some serious flaws, would have to step up his game considerably.
Kris Joseph would absolutely need to average a double-double for the entire tournament for this team to have any chance at advancing past the sweet sixteen.
Teams would relentlessly attack the frontline in hopes of getting them in foul trouble.
In that situation, in comes Riley and out goes the hopes of a final four or national title.
Not to rag on Riley, but we all saw it when Syracuse played at Georgetown this year, which was the only game where the frontline was in so much foul trouble that he had to come in. He didn’t perform well, was dominated by the Hoya’s frontline and was non-existent on offense.
He’s a developing freshman, so what can you expect? Under Boeheim's guidance, he could become a Syracuse household name by his junior year.
But that’s a moot point.
He’s not ready now, and with him potentially having to play significant minutes in the NCAA tournament, the one thing the Greek Goddess Pandora left us, hope, was all but lost.
But, like Whitney Houston was able to do a number of years ago, Syracuse Nation can exhale.
There’s no doubt this injury could affect Arinze, it has his whole career in CNY. But just having his experience, his big body and most importantly, his hunger, in the starting lineup is enough.
Syracuse is a No. 1 seed, and the competition they play in the first round should allow him some serious rest.
He’ll be as close to 100 percent as possible when The Orange starts playing serious competition in the second round and beyond.
He may even just be at 1 percent.
But 1 percent is better than zero, right?