All season Syracuse (31-2) has been dealing with adversity. The March Madness tournament will be no different.
On Tuesday the NCAA ruled Big East defensive player of the year Fab Melo ineligible for the tournament due to “eligibility reasons.” The 7-footer was suspended for three games earlier this season for academic reasons. The suspension figuratively and literally leaves a massive hole in the Orange’s line-up.
Syracuse enters the tournament as the No. 1 seed in the east regional with a first round matchup Thursday against Big South conference champion UNC Asheville. Melo’s suspension isn’t the first controversy the team has dealt with this year.
Assistant coach Bernie Fine was fired earlier this season amidst claims he sexually assaulted three former ball boys. Head coach Jim Boeheim quickly came to his assistant coach’s defence, but was forced to back track from his comments. Last week, the team was in the news again, this time for the team self-reporting possible violations of its internal drug policy by former members of the team.
On the court, they struggled when Melo missed three games in January, including a 67-58 loss to Notre Dame.
A run deep into the NCAA March Madness will be the greatest indication of the team’s ability to deal with pressure.
"I always tell the players going in, you just have to go out and play. If you worry about it, you won't play well. But the pressure's always there. The pressure is always on players, and they're used to it,” said Boeheim on Sunday following the announcement the team would face UNC Asheville on Thursday. “They've had it from high school age, they've played in thousands of games, and they've been pressured all their lives.”
Through all this, the Orange just kept on winning with a simple recipe: depth and good sound defence.
Syracuse goes nine players deep -- a rare feat for teams in the one-and-done era of college basketball. The offensive load starts with Montreal native Kris Joseph. The Wooden trophy nominee for national player of the year led the team in scoring with 13.8 points a game. Dion Waiters, the likely national sixth man of the year, leads a host of bench players with 12.6 ppg. Waiters, along with other bench stars James Southerland and CJ Fair, have the ability to take over games in limited minutes.
Where Melo will really be missed is on the defensive side of the court. The Big East defensive player of the year was the anchor of Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone, which forces teams to adjust their offensive strategy to beat the Orange. Syracuse forced 16.6 turnovers per game this season and used this pressure to trigger their transition game. If Syracuse gets running, there are very few teams in the tournament that can beat them. Melo will likely be replaced in the middle with freshman Rakeem Christmas. The former high school all-star does not bring the same physical presence as Melo.
The exclusion of Melo in the tournament may expose Syracuse’s greatest weaknesses. The zone defence can be picked apart by a hot shooting team. In last weekend’s Big East championship, the Orange were dismantled by Cincinnati from long distance in the first half. The Bearcats nailed eight three-pointers in the game’s first 20 minutes.
With the loss of major size in the middle, the Orange can be exploited by a good rebounding team with a strong inside presence. Syracuse is ranked an abysmal 341 out of 345 teams in defensive rebounding percentage. Often this season opponents were getting not just one but two or three offensive rebounds per possession.
However, even with weaknesses this is a veteran-led team with the best depth in the country. Scoop Jardine and Joseph played critical roles for the team in 2010 when as a one seed they were upset in the sweet 16 by Butler.
Anything but a trip to New Orleans for the Final Four will be a disappointment for the Orange. The team’s only national championship came in the Big Easy in 2003, with the team led by freshman Carmelo Anthony.