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College basketball: Grant gets opportunity with SU

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Jerami Grant figured he would play a minor supporting role on this year’s Syracuse University basketball team while learning the ropes and getting more comfortable with the talent and physical play at the big-time basketball level.

But circumstances beyond his control have thrust the freshman forward into the spotlight in recent weeks. And he’s not only embraced the opportunity, he’s thriving at a time when the Orange need him most.

The sudden ineligibility of senior James Southerland, SU’s valuable sixth man, at the start of the semester meant Grant would see more time immediately.

The recent notice that freshman center DaJuan Coleman, who had started all 20 games, would be sidelined for at least a month with a knee injury that required surgery, assured that Grant’s presence going forward will be even more important.

“Jerami has shown that he can play and compete,’’ said SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who works with the SU forwards. “But now, he’s going to find out what it really means to play meaningful minutes with James and DaJuan out.’’

Grant, a 6-foot-7, 190-pounder who came to SU from one of the top high schools in the country, DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., has already produced when thrown into the fray. In the past four games, with Southerland unavailable, he has stepped in at power forward and given SU a huge lift on both ends of the court.

Playing 29 minutes a game, Grant has averaged 10 points and 5.4 rebounds in a pair of games against Villanova, Louisville and Cincinnati. He’s hit double figures three times, has improved his shooting percentage by 15 points and has gone 13-for-15 at the foul line during that period.

It’s safe to say without Grant’s production, the Orange could have lost all four of those games instead of winning three of four.

“He’s meant as much to us as anybody else in the last four games,’’ SU senior guard Brandon Triche said. “Jerami was thrown into a tough spot, and he’s handled it beautifully. He’s proven he’s a big-time player, and he’s only going to keep improving.’’

Grant said he was always ready for a bigger role. He just wasn’t sure when it would happen.

“With James playing so well, there really wasn’t a lot of court time for me,’’ said Grant, one of four sons of former NBA star Harvey Grant. “I feel so bad for James because this was his last year and he was really playing well. But it gave me the chance to show what I can do. I’ve worked really hard to get to this point.’’

Ranked 37th overall and 11th among power forwards on the ESPN 100, Grant was a Jordan Brand All-American and was one of 24 athletes invited to the USA Basketball Under-18 national team training camp last summer.

He arrived at SU, however, with a lot less fanfare that his fellow freshman, Coleman.

“Jerami’s game needed some work, so we were going to bring him along slowly,’’ Hopkins said. “But one man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity. He’s really been one of our main guys the last two weeks.’’

Grant has shown a toughness that belies his slender build. He’s stuck his nose into the battle underneath and done some solid work. Not known as a great outside shooter, Grant has shown an expanded range on his jumper. He has also not been afraid to take the ball hard to the basket in traffic.

“He looks kind of thin and brittle,’’ sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “But we’ve seen in practice how tough he can be.’’

SU coach Jim Boeheim played Grant sparingly through the first few games of the Big East season after seeing what he could do in limited time in the pre-conference season. But he hasn’t hesitated going to Grant of late, even starting him the second half the past two games.

“Jerami deserves what he’s getting because he’s played well,’’ Boeheim said. “He’s given us some much-needed scoring, has been a tough rebounder, and I really like what he’s doing on the defensive end in our zone.’’

Grant also has five blocked shots to his credit while patrolling the baseline in the Orange zone.

“The defensive part has been the toughest to learn,’’ said Grant, whose older brother Jerian is a junior at Notre Dame. “Guys are so strong and quick at this level. It’s taken some time to learn how to react in the zone and be in the right position.’’

Hopkins said Grant’s potential is limitless.

“He’s just scratched the surface of what he can be,’’ Hopkins said. “Although we’ve kind of thrown him into the fire, this will only speed up the process and help him be a very good player down the line.’’

Orange depth now a problem

When the season began, Syracuse’s depth was one of its biggest assets.

With nine players in his game rotation, Boeheim mixed and matched at different positions, keeping players fresh and making it tough for the opposition to concentrate on one or two guys.

But with the absence of Southerland and now Coleman, the Orange bench consists of just two players.

Grant is expected to step into the starting lineup when the Orange play at Pittsburgh Saturday. Sophomore Rakeem Christmas will move from forward to center to take Coleman’s spot. That leaves only junior center Baye Moussa Keita and redshirt freshman guard Trevor Cooney as reserves.

What it really means is that the starters will have to play more minutes, and avoid getting into foul trouble.

The starting guards, Brandon Triche and Carter-Williams, are already averaging 34 and 33 minutes per game, respectively, the most on the team. That will likely increase.

And starting small forward C.J. Fair is logging 32 minutes per contest. However, he played all 45 minutes against Villanova and did not come out of the games against both Louisville and Cincinnati.

“We’re all in good enough shape to play more,’’ Triche said. “Hopefully, we won’t get burnt out with all these tough games left.’’

Boeheim reportedly has told walk-on Matt Lyde-Cajuste, a 6-4 powerfully built forward, to be ready to see some action against Pittsburgh. He has seen only time at the end of games, but may have to be on the court if the other forwards get into foul trouble as they did vs. Villanova.

“It’s not an ideal situation,’’ Boeheim said. “But we have to make the most of it. We’ve still got good players who know how to win.’’

It’s not like SU has not had to deal with such issues before.

Last season, the Orange played without starting center Fab Melo for three games during the season, and then saw him declared ineligible for the NCAA Tournament as the Orange made a run to the regional finals where they lost to Ohio State.

In 2010, center Arinze Onuaku was hurt in the Big East Tournament and could not play in the NCAA Tournament when SU lost in the Elite Eight to Butler.

This time, the Orange must play smarter, especially on defense, and make some adjustments on offense to overcome their bench woes.

n The Syracuse Post-Standard reported that Southerland will have his appeal to regain eligibility heard next week.

He has missed Syracuse’s last four games after being declared ineligible prior to the Orange’s game against Villanova on Jan. 12. Southerland’s ineligibility is due to an unspecified academic issue. The paper said Southerland’s appeal will be in front of a Syracuse University panel, not NCAA officials.

GEORGETOWN BLOWOUT

Syracuse and Georgetown play in the Carrier Dome for the final time under the umbrella of the Big East Conference on Feb. 23. The 4 p.m. game will be televised by CBS.

The university has already sold more than 32,000 tickets for what will likely be an emotional game for SU coach Jim Boeheim. SU will also retire the jersey of Carmelo Anthony at halftime.

The Carrier Dome attendance record is 34,616, set in February 2010 vs. Villanova. SU spokesman Pete Moore said the Dome has “the opportunity to exceed that amount because a couple of changes” were made with seating inside the building since the Villanova game.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net.

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