Men's Basketball

Sorely missed: SU looks for answers with Grant’s nagging back injury keying slump

Sam Maller | Staff Photographer

Jerami Grant has missed the second half in each of the Orange's last two games. The Orange has stalled offensively and defensive when he's been sidelined.

Jerami Grant lay on his back and stared up into the Cameron Indoor Stadium rafters with 14:13 left in Syracuse’s loss to Duke on Feb. 22.

He’d just collided with Rodney Hood after converting a layup to put the Orange up two. And as he slowly stood up and jogged back downcourt, Grant bent his arm around his side and rubbed his lower back.

Two weeks later, Grant’s back is still sore, and SU has struggled to find a rhythm without him.

“It was sore during the Duke game, but he was able to kind of get through it,” head coach Jim Boeheim said on the Atlantic Coast Conference coaches’ teleconference Monday. “Since then it’s just been at a level where he couldn’t move well.”

Grant has been limited to 26 total minutes in SU’s two games since Duke, and none in the second half of either as the once-undefeated Orange stumbles into its penultimate regular-season game on a 1-3 stretch. Now he’s day-to-day heading into No. 7 Syracuse’s (26-3, 13-3 Atlantic Coast) home finale against Georgia Tech (13-16, 4-12) in the Carrier Dome on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Grant was not expected to practice as of Monday afternoon as he received treatment for his back, SU Athletics spokesman Pete Moore said in a text message. With the ACC tournament less than two weeks away, it’s possible Boeheim decides to rest his leading rebounder in hopes of having him in top form when it counts.

“There’s nothing structurally wrong,” Boeheim said. “But his back is sore. We’ll just have to see how he feels on Tuesday.”

In Grant’s place on the wing, converted guard Michael Gbinije and center Rakeem Christmas have each seen time on the wing of the 2-3 zone.

Gbinije said his familiarity playing small forward in high school and as a freshman at Duke makes the switch easy. He’s also continued to practice there in addition to working with the guards this season.

“I’m not sure how many times I’m going to be in that position,” Gbinije said after SU’s 75-56 loss to then-No. 12 Virginia on Saturday. “I just have to play in that position now. Down the road, I may be back at the guard. I may still be at forward. I don’t know.”

Whatever the case, the Orange has struggled mightily without Grant. When he couldn’t return for the second half against Maryland on Feb. 24, the Terrapins attacked Syracuse for 19 free throws and nearly rallied back from a 12-point deficit.

SU ultimately escaped when Nick Faust’s baseline drive was turned away by SU center Baye Moussa Keita — much to the dismay of UMD head coach Mark Turgeon — but the Orange couldn’t handle Virginia without Grant on Saturday.

The Cavaliers turned the SU zone inside out, shooting 7-of-11 from 3 en route to a 48-point second stanza.

“That’s a significant blow for them,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said on the teleconference. “He’s so talented. And he’s one of those guys that can make stuff happen on the offensive glass. He blocks shots, slashes. So when he couldn’t play in the second half, it makes them adjust and they lose a high-level player.”

Bennett coached Grant on USA Basketball’s U-19 team last summer before Grant withdrew before the world championships due to mononucleosis.

And even in that small sample size, it was clear to Bennett how profound an effect Grant has on a team — especially this Syracuse team that rotates only seven players.

“They probably aren’t as deep as coach (Boeheim) has been in the past,” Bennett said. “That really had an effect. It would be like us losing one of our top players.”

If Boeheim were to expand his rotation, it’s likely the next man in would be freshman Tyler Roberson.

He scored five quick points in the meaningless final 3:13 against Virginia, but hasn’t seen much significant court time all year.

Teammates agreed they’ve seen him improve gradually, as has Boeheim, but Roberson has played just 50 minutes since the start of conference play.

“I think he’s made some strides,” Boeheim said. “I think it’s been a tough process for him, but I think he definitely has made some strides. We’ll see moving forward what his contributions can be.”

Whether it’s the return of Grant, the improvement of the rest of the starters or the emergence of a reserve, it’s clear the Orange needs some kind of pick-me-up heading into tournament season.

And Georgia Tech, which lacks the shooters other teams have used to challenge Syracuse’s zone, is the last reasonable chance for SU to experiment with a fix.

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