The Syracuse Orange went from outhouse to penthouse more than a few times this past season, but in the end Jim Boeheim's team came thisclose from playing for the national championship. An unreal run that can best be explained by defense, as in when Syracuse played its brand opponents were as good as dead. But there were plenty of other reasons why the Orange crashed the party in Atlanta.
And one big reason why, and my winner for Most Surprising Player, is the play of Baye Keita. A player averaging three points and three rebounds. Someone who played at the pace suited for a Porsche, but with the makings of a Hyundai. Yet, there is no debating the junior big man's importance to Syracuse over the final month of the season.
Consider: Keita played nearly 19 minutes a game over the final eight contests. Against Indiana, the one seed in the East and a heavy favorite not just against Syracuse but to reach the Final Four, Keita stayed on the court for 31 minutes. With Dajuan Coleman and Rakeem Christmas playing Ghost Car, just without the cars, Keita's mere presence (don't forget how important Keita's shot-blocking and shot-altering was too) was enough to help the Orange advance. Not only that, but Keita somehow made 23 of his last 33 free throws for the season -- going 7 for 7 from the charity stripe against Georgetown in the Big East semis and 7 of 10 against Cal in the third round. And we all know, Cal would have been right back in it had Keita not been clutch from the foul line.
But obviously, with the type of season Syracuse had -- injuries, suspensions, general craziness -- there were plenty of choices for Most Surprising Player:
Sean went with Jerami Grant:
We should have known DaJuan Coleman was going to have a Syracuse Freshman Center Season. That left Grant to be the only freshman with decent chances on the court. And Grant made the most of them, evolving into a critical piece of the rotation by the time SU got into the NCAA Tournament. If he continues to develop at this pace, there's no way he'll still be here as a senior.
Andy went with an other obvious choice, Trevor Cooney...WAAA?
This is more of a negative surprise but after all of the hype and promise, he underperformed. Even during the year, we all saw what he could do in proactice, but never was the #WhiteGuyDagger Syracuse fans dream of.
Ahhhh, I get it now.
Chris threw out James Southerland:
I'm going back to the JSizzle(TM) well on this one. J-South was an enigma for three years. Clearly talented and athletic but, for whatever reason, unable to put things together. After three years, you tend to think a guy is never going to "get it". Southerland did, though, nearly doubling his scoring from a year ago. I honestly didn't expect that.
Invisible Swordsman agrees with me on Baye Keita:
During the BE and NCAA tournaments, The Matrix came into his own, becoming the anchor of our absolutely awesome zone, and even became one of our most reliable free throw shooters. BMK may post some Thabeet-esque numbers next year.
Dan Lyons thought Southerland's development, a more rounded game, was a pleasant surprise:
When he was forced to play as a sophomore due to a Kris Joseph concussion, Southerland had a really awful game at Pittsburgh where he was on the court for most of the game and only brought down two rebounds. In his press conference, Jim Boeheim remarked that a dead person could grab two boards in thirty minutes if you sat him under the basket. I wasn't shocked that James was able to find his scoring touch this year; he's long been the most athletic player on the team and he has an incredible shooting stroke. I was surprised with just how much he developed in the other facets of the game. James became a solid wing defender, a pretty good rebounder, and a guy who could tack on some steals and blocks every game. His shooting was always the highlight of his play, but it's the other areas that seal this one for me.
John Cassillo throws some heavy praise to Senegal's own, Baye Keita:
Baye Keita, you're the only person that could hit free throws at the end of the year, and for that, I am very surprised (and thankful). You're Senegal's best, Baye. Don't let anyone tell you differently.
And lastly, the viewers, whom without none of this would be possible (that's a bad thing, a very bad thing), chose Keita as the Most Surprising Player from the 2012-13 season.
Keita picked up 200 votes earning 51% of the vote. Which tells me what I've been thinking for the last few weeks, did more than expected. He was was supposed to be a middle reliever. Come in for a few minutes here, a few minutes there, eating up innings for the big boys. While his play was shaky earlier in the season, by March Keita was eating up minutes but he was also becoming something of a force -- one that could get a big rebound, block a shot, and just harass the opposing bigs.
Without all of that, no way Syracuse makes it to Atlanta. If there's something more surprising than that about this season, I can't think of it. So congrats Baye Keita, you're the Most Surprising Player -- now go hit the gym!