Onuaku injury leaves Orange in limbo
NEW YORK – The key to Syracuse’s national championship hopes left Madison Square Garden Thursday on crutches.
A brace covered Arinze Onuaku’s right leg from ankle to mid-thigh as he passed team physician Irving Raphael, who was discussing Onuaku’s X-ray results with a gaggle of reporters following the Orange’s 91-84 loss to Georgetown in the Big East tournament.
Less than an hour earlier, Onuaku had left the game with 5:07 remaining because of a leg injury that occurred as he battled Hoyas center Greg Monroe for a rebound.
Onuaku writhed in pain on the floor before being helped to the locker room, where his parents joined him after being summoned from the stands. Syracuse’s coaches, players and physicians did everything they could to downplay the severity of the injury, but as he exited the arena, the solemn look on Onuaku’s face told a different story.
Staring at the ground as he trudged toward the door, Onuaku was asked if he thought he’d play in the NCAA tournament. He didn’t answer, instead letting Raphael talk about his condition.
“The X-ray looked fine,” Raphael said. “The thigh bone, the knee cap and the knee joint looked fine on the X-ray. Of course, the X-rays don’t show us things like muscles and tendons and ACLs.”
But an MRI does, and one has been scheduled for Onuaku on Friday morning in Syracuse.
With Onuaku, the Orange are one of the three best teams in country along with Kansas and Kentucky and a favorite to reach the national title game. Without him they’re a Sweet 16 team at best.
“I prayed on the court as soon as I saw him go down,” teammate Kris Joseph said. “I just hope that everything turns out OK and that a couple of treatment sessions will get him back to where he needs to be.”
Even if Onuaku is able to compete, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to perform at a level as high as the one he’s played at during a season in which he averaged 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds.
You don’t go from using crutches and wearing a full leg brace one week to playing at 100 percent the next.
“This team has fought adversity all year,” guard Andy Rautins said. “If he can’t play we’ll be good about picking up the slack.”
Sorry, not buying it.
The Orange may be able to get by DePaul or Providence without Onuaku, but now we’re talking about the NCAA tournament, where it will be tough for an undermanned Syracuse squad to beat a No. 8 or a No. 9 seed in the second round without its mainstay.
It’s a tough break for the Orange, who have been one of college basketball’s best stories all season. In a year in which they were picked to finish sixth in the Big East, Syracuse won the league title and is all but a lock to receive the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Still, the main thing lacking from Syracuse all season – the only thing lacking – was its depth. You can win playing seven players, which Jim Boeheim’s squad has proven. But you can’t contend for a national title with only six of them.
Or at least six healthy ones.
That’s the thing about Onuaku: It’s not as if he’s an All-American-caliber player. He didn’t even make All-Big East. The problem is that it’s a numbers thing. The Orange simply don’t have anyone proven to replace him.
With Onuaku out of the lineup, Syracuse would only have three frontcourt players (Wesley Johnson, Joseph and Rick Jackson) who averaged more than 10 minutes per game.
“We’re just trying to stay positive right now,” said Rick Jackson, who plays alongside Onuaku. “That’s all we can do.”
The good news is that Raphael said it doesn’t appear that Onuaku tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He said his best guess that is that he senior re-injured the quadriceps tendon he had surgery to repair last summer.
As a sophomore Onuaku had surgery on his right knee because of the same injury.
“We’re hoping it’s just a minor strain of an area he injured a few years ago,” Raphael said. “It’s hard to speculate right now, but he’s a tough kid. If he can come back, he’ll be back.
“If someone said, ‘Do you expect him to play?’ I’d say, ‘I expect him to play.’”
The Orange are crossing their fingers that happens.
Their national championship hopes depend on it.