Looking at the Syracuse Orange basketball roster as the team heads into the 2013-14 season as one of the favorites to contend for a national title, backup center Baye Keita is probably the last guy most people would peg as one of the most important cogs.
After all, this is a guy who was pretty lightly recruited out of Oak Hill Academy, rated as the 13th-best center prospect as a senior by ESPN.com and known for his raw athleticism but not much else. However, over the course of his four years at Syracuse, he’s evolved into one of Jim Boeheim‘s favorites and the center he trusts most when it comes to crunch time, and this season will be no different.
The 6-foot-10 senior from Senegal will never get the same kind of headlines as fellow fourth-year man C.J. Fair, but he is the unquestioned leader on this year’s Syracuse team.
He sets the tone both on and off the court, including at a recent charity dinner for the local Boys and Girls Club attended by the team, with reports that he took it upon himself to walk around and visit the tables where freshmen were seated with donors to make sure they were comfortable and to help break the ice. His leadership is one of his two best qualities as a basketball player.
The other is his tenacity. No one will ever confuse Keita with a skilled basketball player, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in America who works harder when he gets on the floor. He has the ability to alter games with timely rebounds and with his presence on the defensive end, swatting away shots in the middle of Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone.
Last season, he averaged just 3.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, almost always coming off of the bench. However, he came up with several big performances down the stretch.
In an overtime win against Georgetown in the Big East Tournament, he scored 13 points and grabbed eight boards while hitting an astonishing (for him) 7-of-7 free throw attempts, and he had 11 points and seven boards in a win over California in the NCAA Tournament as the Orange made a run to the Final Four.
Keita will likely be coming off the bench all season as a senior as well, playing behind Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman, but rest assured that even if he isn’t among the five players who start the game, he’ll almost always be one of the five who finish it.