If there was an out-of-sport comparison for Syracuse senior Arinze Onuaku, it would have to be Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees closer.
Rivera has been throwing his patent cutter for more than 10 years now. Opponents know the pitch is coming, yet there is nothing they can do about it. It’s predicable and reliable, and has allowed Rivera to become one of the most dominant pitchers of his generation.
Like Rivera, Onuaku has his own bread-and-butter move. First, he’ll use his 260-pound frame to establish position inside. Then, he’ll use either use a drop step or a spin move to set up a baby hook with either hand.
And, like Rivera, when Onuaku goes to his proven technique, his opponent is left helpless.
“He gets deep position,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “When he’s making the left-hand jump-hook from 8 feet over a 7-foot guy, I don’t know what else we can do, quite frankly.”
His signature shot has allowed Onauku to become the 52nd player in SU history to compile 1,000 points in his career that has seen him set school records for field goal percentage. Last season, Onauku made 66.7 percent of his shots, which broke a 29-year-old school record held by Roosevelt Bouie, who in the 1979-80 season hit 65.4 percent.
“I just have to go out there and play hard every game,” Onauku said. “I know I can play with anybody in the country. I just have to come out and be consistent.”
And that’s exactly what Onuaku has been.
Since ascending to the starting center spot in the 2007-08 season, Onuaku has started 82-of-83 games in the past three years and has averaged 12.7 points, 10.3 points and this season, Onuaku has posted 10 points per game.
WORK LEFT TO DO
Of course, Onuaku is far from a finished product. While he may be on pace to set a record for best field goal percentage, he is also the worst free throw shooter in the NCAA over the past decade.
Heading into this season, Onuaku has connected on just 38 percent of his free throws. Last season, Onuaku converted just 29.8 percent of them.
It has made Onuaku a liability at the end of games, and Boeheim is often left with a painful choice.
“We need him in there for defense, but we can’t have him getting fouled and taking empty trips,” Boeheim said. “We can’t have him in there at the end of games – if he gets a rebound, they foul him right away. We can’t afford to have him go zero for two or three.”
The free throw woes don’t come because of lack of trying. Onuaku has spent hours at the end of practices working with Syracuse Associate Coach Bernie Fine on refining his technique.
It’s helped – if only slightly. Onuaku’s hitting 45 percent of his free throws, which is a career high.
“I just have to keep working hard,” Onuaku said. “I hope every year I can improve on something and add a little bit more to my game.”
The other issue with Onuaku this season has been staying healthy.
Onuaku didn’t play basketball at all over the past summer after having surgery to alleviate knee tendinitis.
The knee kept him from having a truly productive campaign last season. After scoring in double digits in 16 of the first 19 games, Onuaku scored above 10 points just nine times over the last 19 games.
“I’m just trying to stay on it, stay close to my trainer so that I can stay feeling good,” Onuaku said. “Doing a lot of ice, a lot of treatments.”
DOING IT HIS WAY
Despite the health concerns, Onuaku has managed to forge a career that has been different from typical Syracuse centers.
On defense, Onuaku doesn’t have the shot blocking presence that the Orange had with Darryl Watkins or Etan Thomas. On offense, Syracuse frequently features Onuaku inside, unlike Jeremy McNeil and Craig Forth, who were both limited scorers.
Besides being able to score inside, Onuaku has made his teammates better by drawing double teams and finding open perimeter shooters.
“[Arinze has gotten an] opportunity to work down there,” Boeheim said. “When they double-team […] we have people open all over the place.”
And, while Onuaku doesn’t collect blocks at the same rate as his predecessors (this season, he’s averaging just 0.8 blocks per game compared to 3.3 blocks per game during Watkins’ senior year), he has found other ways of contributing defensively.
Flashback to January 25, 2010 when then-No. 4 Syracuse knocked off Greg Monroe and then-No. 7 Georgetown, 73-56. Going into that game, Monroe was averaging roughly 16 points and 10 rebounds and had established himself as one of the premier big men in the Big East.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Monroe had fouled out and finished with just eight points, four rebounds, six turnovers and practically no impact on the game. That feat was in no small thanks to Onuaku, who, while not recording a single blocked shot, spent much of the game using his 260-pound frame to force Monroe out of his comfort spots.
“We were able to get people back in on them and our big guys tried to make him take a difficult shot,” Boeheim said. “We did make it hard on him as much as we could.”
Besides his on the court skills, Onuaku has also contributed with his leadership.
While Paul Harris, Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf left with college eligibility remaining in the offseason, both Onuaku and guard Andy Rautins chose to return for their senior seasons. Their veteran presence in an era known for “one-and-done” players has been one of the reasons for Syracuse’s success.
“Obviously when you lose your three leading scorers it’s a tremendous loss,” Boeheim said. “[But] we have as much experience as most teams have and that’s very important ingredient.”
Onuaku has understood this more than anyone.
“I have to be a leader vocally and be an example for the team,” Onuaku said. “Every night I have to go out there and play hard and show the team we are going after it from the tip to the end.”
This article appeared in the March 2010 issue of The Juice.