It’s become an annual tradition in upstate New York in recent years.
The team, humming along, will have some sort of academic or injury problem that derails its season. On Monday, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim announced that starting center DaJuan Coleman will have knee surgery, sidelining SU’s starting center for the rest of the season.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.
In 2010, SU was the top team in the country with a balanced offense that featured Wes Johnson at the wing, sharpshooter Andy Rautins from the perimeter, and Arinze Onuaku in the post. But Onuaku’s knee gave out in the Big East tournament against Georgetown, and Syracuse ended up bowing out in the Sweet 16 to eventual runner up Butler.
In the 2012 season, Syracuse was once again among the nation’s royalty, with two capable seniors (Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine), a talented sixth man (Dion Waiters) and the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year (Fab Melo). That, of course, ended badly, as well.
Melo was declared ineligible for a small stretch of the spring semester, and then for the entire NCAA tournament.
The Orange was caught flat footed by Ohio State in the Elite 8, and the Orange surely could’ve used the defensive presence of Melo against the Buckeyes’ Jared Sullinger. (Ironically, he would be Melo’s future teammate with the Boston Celtics.)
Fast forward to 2014, and Syracuse is once again a contender with a veteran scorer (CJ Fair), an uber athletic wing (Jerami Grant) and a precocious point guard (Tyler Ennis). And, once again, Syracuse is without its starting center.
Fortunately for Syracuse, Coleman’s injury doesn’t carry the same magnitude as Onuaku or Melo. Coleman is part of a three center rotation with Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita. He’s only averaging 4.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 13.0 minutes a game.
Coleman has also struggled with his defense, and has become more of a ceremonial starter a la Craig Forth as a senior or Christmas as a freshman.
The main issue with Coleman’s loss is depth. Syracuse will go forward using a tight seven player rotation, and that may cause some issues. In Saturday’s 59-54 win over Pitt, Christmas played the second half saddled with foul trouble.
“I don’t usually worry about foul counts down the stretch,” Boeheim said. “We can play with foul trouble.”
While Syracuse can—and did—play with foul trouble, but an extra big body with five fouls to spare would’ve helped. It’s a luxury that Syracuse doesn’t have going forward.
The good news is that Christmas has shown an overall improved game recently, especially at the offensive end. Against Pitt, Christmas scored 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting from the field. Unlike his offense in the past, which was limited to mostly dunks and putbacks, Christmas showed off a silky-smooth hook shot reminiscent of his predecessors Onuaku and Rick Jackson.
“Rak made a couple really good post-up moves,” Boeheim said. ”Rakeem was huge during the zone. When they switched to the zone we went to him twice, and he made two really good post moves when we had to have them.”
In Coleman’s absence, expect to see more Christmas, Fair and Grant. Boeheim can also turn to his freshmen, including Tyler Roberson and BJ Johnson. So long as SU doesn’t lose any more key players, their depth should be sufficient to keep the Orange among the nation’s elite.