Mersey mission

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Onuaku’s injury hampers Orange, but won’t end up being devastating

first_imgBUFFALO — On the eve of Syracuse’s second-round game against Gonzaga, players were so uninhibited, so willing to talk about anything and everything.Scoop Jardine, who has been the team’s resident Joe Namath with the media, dished on the origins of his nickname. No, it’s not basketball-related. His grandmother thought his head was shaped like an ice cream scoop when he was born.‘I just came out and my head was all messed up,’ he said.But the status of Arinze Onuaku? That’s like saying bomb on an airplane.‘No comment, no comment,’ repeated Jardine, turning to a different reporter. ‘Next question.’AdvertisementThis is placeholder textA.O. Watch has taken on a life of its own. Since the senior center crumbled to the Madison Square Garden floor on March 11, his status has revved into daily TMZ-level fodder. Above all, the injury gave everybody a new reason to doubt Syracuse.So much for that. Sunday’s 87-65 thrashing of Gonzaga muzzles this logic. Onuaku’s injury is a huge blow. He makes Syracuse deeper and bigger. Paired together, Onuaku and Rick Jackson bludgeon smaller teams underneath. But after Syracuse breezed through Buffalo, it’s obvious that Onuaku’s absence is not the apocalyptic loss that many — count me in — expected.The injury put blinders on the perfect storm unraveling. Syracuse doesn’t need Onuaku until the national title game. Finally healthy, Wes Johnson is reintroducing himself to America as a completely new player. And Syracuse’s road to Indianapolis is big man-proof. The Orange has already faced the best center — Zags 7-footer Robert Sacre — it would until Kentucky in the finals.Granted, DaShonte Riley looked like a kid with his permit trying to navigate through construction-laden Route 81 at times. But don’t lose sleep over Onuaku’s health. If he returns, it’d be a bonus. A surprise $10 bill in Jim Boeheim’s pocket.To be clear, Johnson’s body was battered more than anyone realized. That parental-advisory fall against Providence and hand injury against Connecticut severely dumbed down Johnson’s game. His hip was bruised. His heel was bruised. His hand inflated to oven-mitt horror. No wonder Johnson shot only 31 percent in an eight-game stretch. He had no lift.At HSBC Arena, Johnson made a statement on both ends. With Onuaku out and Jackson in foul trouble, Johnson grabbed 14 rebounds. Offensively, he was possessed.Aggressively launching any shot he pleased — rewatch that step-back 3 immediately after class — Johnson earned himself thousands with each stroke. ‘If I caught it and I shot it, I thought it was going in,’ Johnson said. ‘It was kind of hard to get me out of my zone.’Simultaneously, the game was caving for Syracuse inside. This was the worst-case scenario. When Jackson picked up his third foul with 8:58 still to go in the first half, the Orange should have self-destructed. Sacre practically foamed at the mouth when Riley re-entered the game. At every opportunity, Sacre blasted his right shoulder into Riley’s sternum to post up. The paint was an MMA octagon for him. In disbelief, head coach Jim Boeheim yelled at officials, ‘This is bull****!’ Only Gonzaga never made a push. Take away Riley’s gruesome two-play sequence — an eyesore air ball and the ball being plucked out of his hands by a player half his size — and he served his purpose.‘Losing A.O. hurt our team,’ Jardine said. ‘We feel like A.O. is still with us. I’m going to keep saying that. His presence isn’t out there, but DaShonte played against A.O. all year. For him to give us minutes is a help.’In 15 minutes, Riley used up his five fouls. He’s probably the only player in school history to receive a standing ovation after scoring zero points. Orange fans became parents boosting their son’s self-esteem. They knew Riley would be needed again. Funny thing is, this side of the bracket is favorable for Syracuse. Butler is one of the smallest teams left in the Tournament. Xavier is a team predicated on slashers. Kansas State is feisty, but not overpowering. Syracuse wouldn’t see a threat on the block until Kentucky in the championship game, when there’s always a 50-50 chance DeMarcus Cousins will Rasheed Wallace himself out of a game. And maybe by then, Onuaku will be an Advil away from playing. Depth isn’t a concern. The field is weak in the frontcourt, and we’re watching Wes Johnson redefine himself with each shot.‘You have to,’ he said. ‘The Tournament is a whole new season. I’m going out there and reintroducing myself.’For Syracuse, that will be enough to reach Indy.thdunne@syr.edu Published on March 22, 2010 at 12:00 pm Facebook Twitter Google+center_img Commentslast_img read more