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Barker: Orange squeezed tight if they lose Onuaku

Syracuse's Arinze Onuaku reacts to an injury during

Syracuse's Arinze Onuaku reacts to an injury during the second half of a quarterfinal round NCAA college basketball game at the Big East Conference Championships. (March 11, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

It was just one moment, a couple of painful seconds among the hundreds of thousands that have made up this college basketball season.

Yet it is hard to get past the moment, hard to shake the image of Arinze Onuaku holding his right knee and screaming as he rocked back and forth beneath the basket at Madison Square Garden yesterday.

Just as it's hard to put it in perspective, to say whether it was just a bad moment in an otherwise great season or a turning point in a good season heading south.

A week ago, no one had more confidence than the Orange. They were the No. 1 team in the country and seemed to be a shoo-in for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now, with their 91-84 loss to Georgetown Thursday in a Big East Tournament quarterfinal, they are losers of two in a row and could be headed into the NCAA tourney without their best big man.

At the moment, Onuaku is listed as having a sprained right knee, the result of his having landed awkwardly after challenging Georgetown's Greg Monroe when he went up for a layup with 5:07 left in the game. Though Syracuse team doctor Irving Raphael told several reporters he thinks Onuaku could be back this season, the team won't know until it receives the result of the MRI he is scheduled to have Fridayin Syracuse.

Onuaku was hobbling around the locker room on crutches after the game but went into a backroom when he saw reporters waiting to talk to him. His coach, however, wasn't silent on the issue of what Onuaku means to the team.

"He's a key part of our team,'' Jim Boeheim said. "I mean, he's had a great year. And he's a tremendous player.''

The 6-9 Onuaku has a history of trouble with both knees. He spent much of the last offseason recovering from surgery to relieve the pain from tendinitis in his right knee and missed the entire 2006-07 season after undergoing left knee surgery.

His loss could be acutely felt with Syracuse already down to a seven-man rotation. The Orange also clearly missed his size in the final minutes of yesterday's game as they were unable to play the type of defense they needed to make a comeback against a motivated Georgetown team.

Dashonte Riley, a 6-11 freshman who has been impressive in practice but has played a total of 13 minutes against Big East opponents this season, likely will be pressed into duty if Onuaku can't play when the NCAA Tournament begins. Another possibility is Bayside product James Southerland. He also has limited playing experience but is considered an impressive all-around athlete.

Andy Rautins, who took a medical redshirt after suffering a knee injury of his own in 2007, said the Orange just have to find a way to handle whatever comes their way.

Said Rautins: "It's hard to see a guy you really care about who has had multiple knee injuries writhing in pain on the floor. But we have handled adversity before. If he can't play, as much as we want him to be able to, we will deal with the adversity.''

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