How will Syracuse basketball adjust if Baye Moussa Keita is out?

With no projected return from injury announced at this time, Baye Moussa Keita’s knee is the biggest concern for the Syracuse Orange. Keita suffered a sprained knee in last night’s victory over Clemson, leaving the game in the first half, returning to the bench in the second half with ice on the injury, then departing before team members were made available to the press.

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How will SU do without Keita?

While Keita does not make much of a dent on the scoresheet (2.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game), his value on defense as an active, vocal player has often been cited. His absence is compounded with DaJuan Coleman already out with an injury, leaving Rakeem Christmas as the only healthy center on the Orange roster.

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Last night, the Orange adjusted on the fly when Christmas picked up two quick second half fouls that gave him four in the game. Jerami Grant slid to the center spot on defense and Tyler Roberson came in at forward. Michael Gbinije, who was already in the game, then slid to the small forward spot when Tyler Ennis checked back in, bringing Roberson back to the bench.

Should Keita miss any extended time, or even just Wednesday’s tilt at Pittsburgh, the substitution script will likely remain the same.

Even if he remains out of foul trouble, Christmas is not likely to see his minutes extended beyond his normal range. He has only topped 30 minutes in a game three times this season and is likely to remain around 30-32 minutes per game, especially since the constant banging and bruising down low is physically taxing. While Keita’s presence would normally help keep his minutes down, Christmas will not suddenly become a 40-minute player.

Grant showed last night that the Orange can get by with him at center, although it is far from ideal. While his long arms and leaping ability make him an athletic freak show at times, Grant’s lack of bulk does not help him in the pivot on defense. He can bullied down on defense and nudged aside when competing for offensive rebounds.

The upside for Grant when he plays center is that, when faced with man-to-man coverage, he will likely be guarded by a bigger player who will not be able to match up when he faces up on the wing. Grant, who has shown increased adeptness at driving to the bucket as the season has progressed, could find easier paths to the basket for scores and drawing fouls. Drawing fouls has turned into a bonus for the sophomore, who has also shown an improvement at the stripe, knocking down just under 69 percent from the line this season and an even better 77.8 percent mark in the last six games.

When Christmas goes to the bench and Grant slides to the middle, Gbinije and Roberson are the players likely to fill in on the baseline. Gbinije, in particular, looked very comfortable in his minutes on the baseline against Clemson. While he didn’t make a large imprint on the stat sheet, Gbinije logged almost ten minutes in the second half, including six minutes at small forward, a spot of comfort for him.

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Roberson will likely get minutes in doses based on the opponent and how the game is unfolding. With Pitt looming in a couple days, the freshman who has appeared in the last five games for SU (sitting out the game against the Panthers before that span) could be called upon for his size and rebounding acumen.

In short, if Keita is shelved for any length of time, it will be a loss for the Orange on the floor, and possibly a contributing factor to a loss in the standings. That said, Syracuse has greater concerns down the line and making sure Keita is ready to play when those times arrive is far more important than trying to win games in the doldrums of February.

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
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