Some Syracuse players, including seniors Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph, remember the last time the Orange were heading into the NCAA tournament with national title hopes as high as they are this year.
It was 2009-2010 and Syracuse had lost just three games and was looking to cruise through March when big man Arinze Onuaku went down with a quadriceps injury against Georgetown.
The Orange went on to lose in the Sweet 16 to eventual national championship participant Butler.
Because they are losing another star post presence just before the NCAA tournament, is this season shaping up to be like 2010? Are there any parallels between losing Onuaku to injury and being without center Fab Melo, due to academic issues?
“You never wish for a guy to get hurt. This, we knew this,” said Jardine, comparing the two at Wednesday’s press conference in Pittsburgh. “[Melo] missed games in the beginning of the year. This is a little different. We had a feeling it might come back, and it did. We have to move on from it.”
During that 2010 season, Onuaku was in the Syracuse lineup for all games leading up to his injury, whereas the Orange have played without Melo for three games this year, going 2-1.
“We weren’t used to playing without [Onuaku]. It changed the whole dynamic of our team,” Joseph explained. “This year, since we’ve done it before, it’s something we’ve seen and we’re used to, so we’ll be ok.”
Now without the 7-foot anchor to their zone defense, lesser-emphasized players like Baye Moussa Keita and Rakeem Christmas need to step up.
“Rakeem is getting better everyday,” said Jardine. “He’s a guy who you can actually throw the ball into the post and make a post play.”
Jardine emphasized the versatility that can come to the offensive end without Melo on the floor (a bit of a silver lining) by inserting CJ Fair or James Southerland, both players who can spread the defense away from the basket.
Whether it’s mostly a PR front or the way Syracuse is actually feeling about this situation, they’re speaking confidently, leading up to Thursday’s opening-round game against UNC-Asheville.
“I’ll tell you one thing: that 2010 season prepared us for now,” said Jardine. “We know what we have to do and how we have to play to move on in this tournament.”