NCAA Tournament 2012: Why Syracuse Can Reach Final Four Without Fab Melo
In the biggest pre-March Madness bombshell in recent memory, Syracuse has announced that starting center Fab Melo is ineligible and will miss the NCAA tournament. Considering that Syracuse’s only regular-season loss came in a game for which Melo was suspended, the 7' shot-blocker's absence will certainly have opponents licking their chops.
Before UNC-Asheville starts daydreaming about becoming the first No. 16 seed to upset a top seed, though, it’s time for a reality check: Syracuse is still a very, very dangerous team. The loss of their defensive linchpin is a setback, but not one that guarantees an early exit for the Orange.
Read on for a look at a half dozen reasons that Jim Boeheim’s club still has a very real chance to earn a trip to New Orleans for the Final Four.
6. Syracuse Has Depth
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Although Jim Boeheim has more or less settled into a seven-man rotation as the season has worn on, he won’t have to call on totally untested reserves to pick up Melo’s minutes.
Three players outside of that core group are averaging better than 10 minutes per game this season.
One member of that trio, athletic freshman Rakeem Christmas, got the start in Melo’s stead during Melo’s first suspension this year.
Expect him, along with 6’10” sophomore Baye Keita, to step up and keep the Orange defense tough (if not impervious) in Melo’s absence.
5. On-Court Leadership Will Keep the Distractions to One Side
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On top of losing Melo’s production on the floor, Syracuse has to worry about the psychological impact of having its starting center dropped from the lineup at this critical juncture in the season.
Fortunately for Jim Boeheim, his squad can count on a couple of veteran leaders to help the team stay focused.
Seniors Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine have been the heart of the Orange offense all season, and the former will be playing in his fourth NCAA tournament (Jardine missed the 2008-09 season with a leg injury).
Between the two of them, they’ll keep the Orange on track and worrying about basketball rather than the media spotlight.
4. Orange Still Match Up Well Against East Regional's Best
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With Syracuse’s defense weakened by Melo’s absence, a high-powered offense would have a real chance to outscore the Orange. Many of the best teams in the East regional, though, are just as defense-oriented as Syracuse is.
Kansas State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and even potential bracket-buster Harvard are all dangerous opponents primarily because they can shut down opposing offenses, not because they tend to light up the scoreboard themselves.
Those squads will certainly have a chance to beat the Orange at their own game, but even with Melo gone, none of them is remotely a sure thing to take down Syracuse.
3. Melo's Absence Won't Change Things on Offense
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For all Melo’s enormous contributions to the Orange defense, he isn’t much of an offensive weapon. The 7' sophomore had been averaging a replaceable 7.8 points a game, much of it on put-backs.
With point guard Scoop Jardine running the show, Syracuse’s offense won’t miss Melo very much.
Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters will still carry the scoring load, and a few well-timed passes from Jardine can help some of Melo’s young replacements (likely including promising freshman Rakeem Christmas) chip in about as many points as Melo himself would’ve done.
2. Syracuse's Draw Features Few Upset Threats
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As Cincinnati showed in the Big East tournament, the surest route to taking down a great zone like Syracuse’s—with or without Melo—is superior outside shooting.
Luckily for the Orange, there are only a couple of teams in the East regional that have much chance to attack them from long range (a statement that includes the sixth-seeded Bearcats, who will be hard-pressed to repeat their remarkable performance).
Fifth-seeded Vanderbilt can beat anybody if sniper John Jenkins gets hot, but with two fearsome defenses in front of them (Harvard in the second round, then a likely meeting with Wisconsin), the Commodores are far from a sure thing even to face the Orange.
Similarly, Florida State was able to knock off Duke and North Carolina behind lights-out three-point shooting, but the Seminoles are far from a consistent team offensively and will be in for a terrific battle against Ohio State if they hope to reach the Elite Eight.
1. The 2-3 Zone Is Still an Ace in the Hole
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As important as Melo was to the dominance of the Syracuse zone, the scheme is bigger than any one player. The very fact that Syracuse plays a zone will make it easier for Melo’s teammates to cover for the loss of their star shot-blocker.
Although Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley had a field day against the 2-3 without Melo inside, that’s the exception rather than the rule.
A group of respectable defenders (which Syracuse has in abundance) can be nearly as effective as a first-rate individual star in this system, and the Orange are poised to go just as far as their still-imposing defense can carry them.
For your printable bracket for the 2012 NCAA tournament, click here.