BUFFALO - One minute, Syracuse was sailing along as the No. 1 team in America, and the next, the Orange became the most suspect 28-4 team with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Two straight losses and an injury to center Arinze Onuaku will do that.
Onuaku, who suffered a right quadriceps injury in a Big East quarterfinals loss to Georgetown eight days ago, has been ruled out of tonight's first-round game against 16th-seeded Vermont at Buffalo's HSBC Center. If the Orange advance, coach Jim Boeheim said Thursday of Onuaku, "Whether he would be able to go Sunday is doubtful in my mind . . . He's still got pain when he puts pressure on his leg.''
Losing the 6-9, 275-pound senior center is a formidable challenge for the Orange in the West Regional, but power forward Rick Jackson will slide into the middle of their trademark 2-3 zone defense. Kris Joseph, regarded by many as the best sixth man in college basketball, will join the starting lineup at small forward, moving Big East player of the year Wesley Johnson to power forward.
"We played that lineup 60 or 70 percent of the time this year,'' Boeheim said. "The difference with most teams when they lose a starter is that they're bringing in a guy who has played 15 to 20 minutes. We're bringing in a guy that played 30 minutes a game, so we think our starting lineup is fine. We just don't have the depth.''
Onuaku hasn't practiced since going down hard against the Hoyas at the Garden, where he had to be helped off the court. "I was very scared,'' he said. "That's the first time I went down like that in my career.''
Unable even to ride a stationary bike, Onuaku has confined himself to working with 6-11, 200-pound freshman DaShonte Riley, who has played sparingly this season but might get 10 minutes a game in place of Jackson.
"He's been working hard all week to get extra conditioning,'' Joseph said of Riley. "I know he'll be able to step in and be a game-changer. He's being thrown into the fire, but it's something he's been wanting all year and here it is now.''
If anything, tonight's game is likely to turn into a showcase for Joseph, a slasher who can shoot the three, run the court and play above the rim. Part of the story line is that the Montreal native will be facing his brother Maurice, who plays a key role as Vermont's designated outside shooter.
Asked if they've ever faced each other, Kris Joseph said, "Never in our lives. The biggest game we played against each other was probably a scrimmage. It was probably game six in a series of seven. I think he won that game, too.''
Back in 2005, Vermont upset Syracuse in the first round as a 13th seed. "Being a hometown kid, I certainly recall watching that game,'' Syracuse guard Andy Rautins said. "All of Syracuse was destroyed by that game. That serves as a little bit of motivation for us to not have any letdowns.''