Winning With Baye Keita
The regression of Baye Keita has been a story for most of this season, but on Saturday, it may have become too big for even the biggest Keita fan to ignore. After a solid freshman season that saw Keita play more minutes than perhaps Jim Boeheim planned due to the slow development of Fab Melo, he’s become worse this season in a smaller role. His rebounding, the supposed bread and butter of his skill set, has worsened to the point that his 2.4 boards per game are lower than nearly every member of the Orange rotation. The only player averaging fewer rebounds per game is Dion Waiters, who is right behind Keita at 2.3, though to his credit, Keita is the leading shot-blocker behind Melo.
While Keita’s decline has been noted throughout the season, the team really felt the squeeze when he was forced back into significant playing time with Melo sitting out while academic issues were resolved. Keita’s 25 minutes against Notre Dame were the most he had played in a game since totaling 27 minutes against UConn last season, and all he could muster was two points and two rebounds to go with a pair of turnovers. Though he played better against West Virginia (four points, four rebounds, three blocks and no turnovers in 25 minutes), it was evident that even that kind of performance wasn’t sufficient for a backup.
The ire towards Keita appeared to have reached a boiling point in the Twitterverse in the second half of SU’s win over UConn. As you probably remember, after rebounding a missed follow by Dion Waiters, Keita came down with the ball at point-blank range, and rather than throw the ball through the basket, attempted to lay the ball in – and missed. It was around that time that the Huskies’ run started to escalate, and while the blame can’t be placed squarely on him, it can be argued that Keita’s miss kept the momentum in UConn’s favor. Even though the Orange held on to win the game and claim its second Big East Championship in three years, the team’s froncourt depth behind Fab Melo remains a question as the team enters the most important part of its season.
Melo’s endurance since returning to action has been a godsend, as he’s averaged 30.3 minutes in his last seven games. Avoiding foul trouble and drawing charges, he’s been the venerable anchor to the 2-3 zone that has been so fruitful to Syracuse all year long. With Rakeem Christmas fortunate to last beyond the first few minutes before the team goes smaller with C.J. Fair and occasionally James Southerland, there aren’t many alternatives. The Orange have had several slow starts lately (Saturday notwithstanding), and Keita has typically entered the game midway through the first half, usually as the team starts to mount one of its patented runs. However, anyone who has watched the Orange will tell you that the team has succeeded despite Keita’s play, not because of it.
It’s tough to get too frustrated with a player that averages just a touch less than ten minutes per game, but it’s harder to ignore the fact that he’s been a major disappointment. In games where Keita has had a steady diet of minutes, more often than not, it hasn’t been because he’s played well, but because because Melo has been saddled with foul trouble or the occasional lack of gold stars. The Orange have surged on despite Keita’s regression, but in tournament settings, where teams are playing on consecutive days or twice within three days, SU’s bench will have to be at its best, and that may require Keita reaching back for some of the toughness and ability that kept the team in games last season.