Now there’s a headline you probably never thought you’d see, right? After news broke this week that Moustapha Diagne was denied his eligibility and will be headed to a junior college instead of joining the Syracuse University basketball roster, suddenly a lot of pressure falls on the shoulders of a 6-foot-10, sparsely used big man from upstate New York.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I mention that Syracuse is suddenly painfully thin in the post, and in terms of roster depth in general. With only nine scholarship players eligible to play this year (the 10th, Paschal Chukwu, has to sit out this year after transferring in from Providence – incredibly poor luck since the 7-foot-2 Chukwu is precisely what the doctor ordered), Jim Boeheim will find himself extremely limited on what he can do this season. Obviously, Boeheim rarely plays more than six or seven guys during games that truly matter, and you can expect this year’s primary contributors to be Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije, Tyler Roberson, Kaleb Joseph, Dajuan Coleman, Tyler Lydon, and Malachi Richardson.
That leaves Frank Howard, who probably needs to develop for a year and is stuck behind the Cooney/Gbinije/Joseph/Richardson logjam at guard anyway, and Obokoh as the last two men in the rotation. But even though Obokoh looks to be the ninth man on paper, he could quickly find himself in a much bigger role this year, based on a number of possibilities.
The first is that the injury prone Coleman could, well, get injured. Orange fans need to be crossing every finger and toe and anything else that the former Jamesville-DeWitt star stays healthy, but recent history makes it hard to get too confident. The second is that, even if Coleman stays healthy, there’s a real cause for concern that foul trouble could crop up, leaving Obokoh as the only true big man coming off the bench.
I mentioned the possibility of Roberson sliding over to play the center position in an emergency, but the 6-foot-8, 215 pound junior is hardly an ideal fit for the middle of the 2-3 zone. Unless Boeheim suddenly decides to install a little man to man defense and force the tempo to negate the lack of size in the middle, that means Obokoh is the next man up at center.
Obviously, he’s still a very raw prospect. After quite unfortunately losing a year of eligibility due to some NCAA red tape, Obokoh is in his third year in the program but only his second season of action. Last year, in very limited minutes, he averaged 0.8 points and 1.6 rebounds per game in 6.8 minutes. Stretched out to a per-40 average, that translates to 4.5 points and 9.4 rebounds. Obviously, Obokoh isn’t going to play 40 minutes but it does show he’s able to rebound fairly effectively, and it’s rebounding and shot blocking that the Orange will need if he’s going to man the center position, even in a limited capacity.
At times, Obokoh looked plenty lost out on the floor. And by “at times” I mean most of the time, but one of the chief concerns is that he’ll foul out in about three minutes every time he takes the floor. While that very nearly happened once last season (four fouls in five minutes against Florida State), he was pretty surprisingly able to stay out of foul trouble against some very good teams.
Last year, Obokoh played 10 or more minutes five times, with three of those games coming against Boston College, Notre Dame, and Duke. He picked up a combined five fouls in 38 total minutes between those three games. Not exactly stellar, but if Obokoh can even provide 10-15 minutes without picking up too many fouls, while also contributing about four rebounds and a blocked shot or two per game, that’d probably be more than many of us could have hoped for from the project center.
It’s unfortunate that Obokoh was unable to make the trip to Europe to play with USA East Coast, after having been named to the roster back in June. It could have been a valuable experience for Obokoh to get in that extra competition and experience, but he remained in the US to complete some summer academic work instead. Chances are, Obokoh was brought in to work in the program for a full five years, taking advantage of his size and athleticism to much more slowly learn how to really play the game of basketball and become an effective backup center by his redshirt junior year. Because the NCAA took away one year of his eligibility, that idea quickly went off the rails, and now that there are only nine scholarship players available this year, he’s being forced into a much bigger role than probably even he anticipated.
It’s going to be an interesting transition year for Syracuse as they begin the NCAA’s scholarship reduction now that they’re back down to 10 players. There’s very little margin for error for Boeheim’s squad this season if they want to earn a trip to March Madness, and at least some moderate progression by Obokoh could be a chief factor in the team finding success this season. By all accounts, Obokoh is a strong student and a terrific young man. Now we just need to see him develop into a capable backup for the Orange this season.