By now you’ve surely heard.
Syracuse starting center Fab Melo has been ruled ineligible for the NCAA Tournament and may never suit up for the Orange again as a result of the academic issues that kept him out for three games earlier in the season. “The NCAA went back and looked at his schoolwork,” one source told CBSSports.com. “They are looking into the fact that he didn’t do some of the work.”
Hopefully, you haven’t already filed your bracket, because losing Melo will make a massive difference for the Orange. He is, as Luke Winn puts it, “simultaneously the Orange’s most obvious defensive force (by blocking shots) and its secret weapon (by taking charges and creating turnovers).”
That’s really all you need to know about Melo’s presence in the paint. He not only blocks 2.9 shots per game, he forces opponents that he’s engaged with to shoot just 29.1% from the field without fouling (his defensive free throw rate is 37.7%).* That doesn’t even mention the fact that he gathers steals and takes charges as well as any big man in the country. Melo is not a good rebounder outside of his area, which is a major problem for a team that struggles on the defensive glass, but his ability to end possessions via the turnover and the number of missed shots he forces make up for it.
*All of those stats came from Winn’s exhaustive research here.
Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas both provide Syracuse with the kind of length and athleticism that Boeheim requires in the middle of their zone, but they do not provide the same kind of all-around defensive presence. It begs the question: might Syracuse be better off changing up their style of play?
I’m not saying ditch the 2-3 zone, because going man-to-man at this point would be an utter disaster. But what if Syracuse started to press more? Think about it. There is still loads of talent on this roster — Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Michael Carter-Williams, Kris Joseph, CJ Fair, James Southerland. That is an athletic group, a team that would be effective playing the same style as a Marquette or a Missouri.
Get out and pressure more. Make the game more uptempo and helter-skelter. Waiters is a terrific on-ball defender, one that would be a nightmare for opposing guards to try and deal with. Triche, Jardine and Carter-Williams are all-above average defenders, at least good enough to be a pest.
That style of play may be helped by the matchups that the Orange have. Of all the teams other than Syracuse in the top half of the East Region, I don’t think it is a stretch to argue that UNC-Asheville and Montana — the two lowest-seeded teams in the region — have the best back courts. It certainly isn’t controversial to say that the biggest issues with Kansas State and Vanderbilt, the favorites to face Syracuse in the Round of 32 and the Sweet 16, respectively, involve their back court.
That makes the Syracuse-UNC-Asheville opening round matchup, which pits a No. 1 seed and a No. 16 seed, suddenly must-see TV. How will the Orange adjust to life without Melo?
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.