Men's Basketball

Front and center: Christmas, Grant face stout test versus No. 25 Pitt if Keita can’t play

Sam Maller | Photo Editor

Rakeem Christmas is the only healthy center on Syracuse's roster. Baye Moussa Keita sprained his right knee against Clemson and DaJuan Coleman is out for the season.

For the first time this year, Rakeem Christmas will take the floor with likely no backup center on Wednesday — and for Syracuse, it couldn’t come at a worse time.

The Orange travels to a jam-packed Petersen Events Center, where it is 1-6 all time. It will face a head coach with a 10-5 record against Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone and a Pittsburgh team seeking to avenge a game it had nearly wrapped up in the Carrier Dome on Jan. 18.

For No. 1 Syracuse (23-0, 10-0 Atlantic Coast), the 25th-ranked Panthers (20-4, 8-3) may be the perfect storm to end the Orange’s undefeated season and deny it the longest winning streak in program history.

“Having just one center is going to make our job much harder,” SU forward C.J. Fair said. “It puts a little more pressure on Rakeem to play honest defense.”

With senior center Baye Moussa Keita unable to practice after spraining his right knee against Clemson on Sunday, the Orange will lean on 210-pound forward Jerami Grant to help man the middle of its zone in its staunchest road test of the season so far.

Grant held his own against the Tigers, but a Talib Zanna-led frontcourt presents a far bigger problem. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound center gave the Orange frontcourt fits in the first matchup as Christmas (4), Fair (3) and Grant (3) all worked through foul trouble.

On Monday and Tuesday, Grant practiced with the centers. But he’ll likely need more than just extra repetitions to hold his own in the paint against the Panthers. If Keita is sidelined, that will force Grant into the middle early and often.

“It’s definitely going to be tough,” Grant said, “but if I’m put in the same situation, I’ve got to do the same thing.”

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said his team will try to force Grant into the middle by attacking Christmas early and often.

In their first matchup, Zanna gave Christmas trouble using a pump-fake out of the high post to get to the basket, as well as opening up passing lanes into the low post.

In addition to looking for Zanna, Dixon said the Panthers will attack the offensive glass to provide second and third scoring opportunities, as well as additional chances to draw whistles.

That’s where Keita’s potential absence could hurt the Orange.

“Unless you get foul trouble on their starting center, Christmas,” Dixon said on the ACC coaches’ teleconference Monday, “it really won’t change too many things.”

Christmas said that he knows he needs to make a more concerted effort to avoid collecting fouls. He’s racked up at least four in five of the Orange’s last seven games.

But keeping him on the court may take more of a team effort. Fair said the Orange will try to pack in its zone against Pittsburgh in hopes of taking away the entry pass to the high post.

“I think if we do a good job of packing our defense in and helping Rak out, I think we can kind of save him,” Fair said.

But foul trouble or not, Christmas isn’t expected to play 40 minutes. When Grant is out there, the zone may not have to tighten, but it will have to help rebound.

After the Clemson game, Grant said rebounding out of the middle of the zone was the hardest part of his adjustment. He grabbed just one rebound in the second half.

And considering Pitt outrebounded the Orange 35-24 last time, there’s only more reason to crash the boards.

“We just know we’ve got to do more team rebounding,” SU guard Trevor Cooney said. “Everyone’s got to go back. Tyler (Ennis) and I have to go back and get the loose balls that are tipped out and help rebound.”

Individually, Grant struggled in his first two possessions against Clemson, but worked to stay out of the low post and keep the Tigers’ big men from posting him up.

“For Jerami, you’ve just got to beat him to the spot,” Christmas said. “That’s what he was doing out there (against Clemson), and he was doing a good job of it.”

For Syracuse, clean play from Christmas and damage control from Grant will be key in remaining undefeated.

Playing in a hectic environment against a coach with success against the zone is tough enough — but the Orange knows what’s coming.

Barring a return from Keita, it’s just a matter of whether or not Syracuse can stop it.

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