Orange Watch: The importance of the number ‘5’ for Syracuse basketball

Syracuse center Paschal Chukwu
Syracuse center Paschal Chukwu goes up for a rebound. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

Item: We’re not talking about the jersey numeral worn by current injured Orange guard Jalen Carey, or former players such as gone-in-a-flash Chris McCullough (2015) and Donte Greene (2008), or key championship team contributor Josh Pace (2002-05), and not even the great Jason Hart (1997-99, 2000). Instead, we’re talking about the center position (No. 5) on the court. It’s historically been a key component to successful Jim Boeheim teams during his career, both on offense having an inside prescience to compliment outside shooting (more important than ever in today’s college game with the international three-point shot distance), and defensively anchoring both man-to-man and over the past 20 years plus primarily the 2/3 zone.

As you can see from the names below, the eras in which Syracuse basketball has had either NBA players (10), or professional-caliber players manning the middle, has resulted in the most success.

Either way, deep or short NCAA runs or NIT seasons, it’s an impressive list of the 23 centers that started the most games in each particular season listed during their ‘Cuse careers in the Final Four era (1975-present), in which SU has made six national semifinal appearances with one national title:

1975 – Earnie Seibert A modest 4.5 ppg and 4.7 rpg for the large and plodding center who took up space underneath on the school’s first Final Four team headlined by Rudy Hackett, Jim Lee, and Jimmy “Don’t Call Me Bug” Williams.

1976 – Chris Sease Nicknamed “Rocket Man” because, well, he could get off the floor pretty quickly, and pretty vertically in an era the Elton John song was receiving mega air-play. Sease averaged 13.3 ppg and 7.5 rpg in the one season he started.

1977-1980 – Roosevelt Bouie A four-year starter, Bouie was the second-round pick by the expansion Dallas Mavericks in the 1980 NBA Draft, but opted for a 13-year Italian League career including the 1992 European Championship. His No. 50 jersey rightfully hangs on top of the Dome.

1981- Danny Schayes He turned one starting senior season into a fortuitous 18-year NBA career. Put that into perspective; only 20 NBA players in history have played 19-seasons or longer, and only 18 other players in history, like Schayes, played 18 NBA seasons. Heck, even his late father Dolph, a Hall of Famer, “only” played 16 NBA seasons.

1982-84 – Andre Hawkins Burly and beefy round, Hawkins anchored the first Pearl Washington team down low with career-highs averaging 10.5 ppg and 5.9 rpg, but struggled his senior season at power forward.

1985-88 – Rony Seikaly Displaying raw potential upon arrival, Seikaly bumped Hawkins to the “4” spot in 1985 and he became a four year starter and first-ever draft choice of the NBA’s Miami Heat in 1988, enjoying a 12-year NBA career.

1989 – Derrick Coleman D.C., one of the best-ever to wear Orange, manned the middle for the 1989 team, perhaps the best along with the 2010 and 2012 squads not to make the Final Four. The number-one overall selection by the New Jersey Nets in the 1990 NBA Draft, Coleman played 15, sometimes stellar, NBA seasons.

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1990-91 LeRon Ellis The Kentucky transfer was actually Mike Hopkins’ first recruiting assignment, helping convince his California scholastic friend to join the Orange program when Big Blue was placed on NCAA probation in 1989. Ellis, the son (LeRoy) of an NBA player, was the first-round draft choice of the L.A. Clippers in 1991, and played three NBA seasons.

1992 – Dave Siock Although Siock, a deceiving 6’10” lefty shooter, started one more game than Conrad McRae during a season which resulted in a second-round NCAA loss to Massachusetts in Worcester of all places, McRae played twice as many minutes.

1993- Conrad McRae Tragically, McRae came close but never fulfilled his dream to play in the NBA. A second-round pick of the Washington Bullets in the 1993 NBA Draft, McRae failed to make the team. Seven years later after playing abroad and having a contract with Denver voided due to a medical condition, McRae signed a contract with Orlando but died after collapsing during a 2000 summer league practice at age 29.

1994 – Otis Hill It was an auspicious freshman season as a starter for Hill, named to the Big East All Rookie team, but he was foul-prone, limited to just 24 minutes a game, averaging 7.9 ppg and 5.6 rpg.

1995 – J.B. Reafsnyder Basically splitting the minutes with Hill for three seasons, the hustling Ohioan started as a junior, played in the national championship game as a senior, and then spent almost nine seasons playing professionally abroad.

1996-97 – Otis Hill Hill’s inside game blossomed by his junior season, helping SU fall a game short of winning it all, and he led the ‘Cuse in scoring and rebounding as a senior in a disappointing NIT season, later playing over a decade professionally globally.

1998-2000 – Etan Thomas A three-year starter, Thomas was the first (and last) Orange player we can remember that fouled out of a game in the first half, as he did as a freshman against Georgetown. His game, however, grew each season at SU, resulting in being selected in the first round of the 2000 NBA draft by Dallas, and Thomas played 10-years in the league, mostly with Washington.

2001 – Jeremy McNeil Following a medical redshirt, McNeil replaced senior Billy Celluck as the starter, but like Otis Hill before him, foul trouble limited McNeil to 15 minutes a game playing time. He would later be a key contributor off the bench for the ’03 title team.

2002-05 – Craig Forth One of only three players who were four-year starters on this list, Forth will always be known as the player to score the first basket in the championship game win over Kansas off a nice dish from Carmelo Anthony. His play was steady, if certainly not spectacular during his college career.

2006-07 – Darryl “Mookie” Watkins Under the tutelage of one-time big man coach Bernie Fine, Watkins developed into a solid rebounder and shot-blocker by his senior season, and despite being undrafted in 2007, made the Sacramento Kings roster and played a total of 14 NBA games until 2012.

2008-2010 – Arinze Onuaku What-If scenarios will forever haunt Orange Nation. If Onuaku doesn’t suffer a knee injury in the Big East Tournament does Syracuse win its second national title in 2010? Despite being undrafted in 2010, three years later Onuaku made his NBA debut with the New Orleans Pelicans and played 19 NBA games over four seasons.

2011-12 – Fab Melo Despite averaging only 4.9 ppg and 3.8 rpg in a two-year Orange career, Melo was a first-round draft choice of the Boston Celtics in 2012, but played in only six NBA games. Sadly, Melo died of natural causes in his native Brazil in 2017 at age 26.

2013- DaJuan Coleman A big-time local recruit as a McDonald’s All-American, Coleman’s suffered knee and leg injuries which prohibited him from having the kind of career he envisioned coming out of Jamesville-Dewitt.

2014-15 – Rakeem Christmas Another big man who’s game grew throughout his career thanks to the work of big man coach Hopkins, Christmas emerged as an all-ACC player by his senior season, being selected in the second-round of the 2015 NBA Draft by Minnesota, and playing two years with Indiana before embarking on a career abroad now as the son-in-law of the great Michael Jordan.

2016 – DaJuan Coleman Coleman’s rehabilitation from injuries paid off in one sense, he is one of only two Syracuse players – Trevor Cooney – with two Final Four appearances in their SU careers.

2017 – Taurean Thompson How about Taurean “Tampering” Thompson? After all, Seton Hall coaches were found in violation of NCAA rules surrounding impermissible contact of Thompson’s mother in luring him to transfer after a disappointing NIT ‘Cuse season. Thompson has played exactly four minutes this entire season, for a Pirates team eyeing a top four-seed in the NCAA East Regional.

2018-19 – Paschal Chukwu Two NCAA appearances, including a Sweet 16, provided SU fans with perhaps more than they could have expected with the 7’2” Providence transfer in the lineup. Chukwu averaged 4.9 ppg and 6.1 rpg as the SU starting center.

2020 – Bourama Sidibe Currently averaging 5.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg for the 11-7, 4-3 Orange heading into Wednesday night’s game at Notre Dame (7:00 p.m. ET / ESPN2).

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.