It was one month ago, as the clock ticked away and the buzzer sounded at TD Garden in Boston, that I, like many Syracuse Orange fans, sat in my living room disappointed. And to be honest, it still stings.
This season for the Syracuse Orange was a missed opportunity. Everything seemed to be in the Orange's favor. It was one of the weakest years from a talent standpoint in the Big East, and across the national landscape, there was one dominant team, the Kentucky Wildcats, then everyone else.
Among the "everyone elses" stood the No. 1 contender and most formidable threat, the Syracuse Orange. The team finished the regular season at 30-1, with their only blemish coming when their big man and Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo was not in the lineup.
The fact that the team's only loss during the regular season came without Melo could make some believe that if only he played that game, the Orange could have had something really special, an undefeated regular season. That achievement is so rare in college basketball that the players from the last team to do it are almost eligible for Social Security benefits.
It would be foolish to assume, however, that Fab Melo's presence in South Bend on that evening would have made the difference. Notre Dame went into that game having won 45 of its last 46 games on its home floor. Furthermore, the Orange had other close calls, and you never know how the rest of season could have played out had the Orange escaped from the Joyce Center still unbeaten.
But before you take too much time to ponder the question: What if Melo had been in South Bend on January 21st? Perhaps the more important question is: What if he would had been on the floor on March 24th?
Seeing how Ohio State's sophomore All-American Jared Sullinger struggled when being guarded by a bigger defender in the national semifinal against Kansas, it's not unreasonable to think Melo could have given the future NBA lottery pick fits.
Unfortunately, we'll never know how Melo could have matched up against Sullinger. Or whether the 2-3 zone could have been the kryptonite for Kentucky's high-powered offense in the national title game.
Those questions will be remain unanswered for the Orange faithful because of an all too-familiar story.
Learning on the eve of their second-round matchup with No. 16-seed UNC Asheville that Melo would be academically ineligible for the remainder of the season, the Orange once again found themselves as top seed and heading into a title run without their starting center. It was only two seasons ago in 2010 when senior center Arinze Onuaku was injured in the quarterfinal loss to Georgetown in the Big East Tournament, a game, one could argue, that was meaningless to the Orange, having entered the conference postseason assured of being one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament.
However, undersized and short-handed, the Orange went into the Big Dance that year with real title aspirations, coasting through the first weekend by taking care of their business with two lopsided victories over No. 16-seed Vermont and No. 8-seed Gonzaga. At the same time, the top overall seed Kansas failed to make it out of the first weekend, falling to 8-seed Northern Iowa, clearing a path for Syracuse to the national title game.
If only Onuaku were on the court, how would the 2010 season have ended?
Some college basketball analysts still consider the 2010 Syracuse team as the best in the country, even though they were never handed a trophy or cut down a net. It was just the belief that if the Orange were at full strength, with Onuaku in the paint, they would have given coach Jim Boeheim his second national title and elevated him to an even more elite status among the coaching greats.
Yet, even before the 2010 season began, the locations for the March tournament were going to be unkind to the Orange, if they found themselves among the country's elite teams.
The NCAA selection committee determines not only the seeds for each team in the tournament but where the games will be played. Higher seeds get favorable venues, most often playing games close to their campus. This is a huge advantage. Consider that this year the final two teams, Kentucky and Kansas, traveled the fewest miles to make it to the Final Four. Where you play is almost as important as who you play.
Syracuse earned a No. 1 seed in 2010. They got their two games in Buffalo, only two hours from campus, and could have had two more at an East Regional site somewhere in the Northeast. The only problem was that for 2010, the venue was the Carrier Dome and the host school was Syracuse, which meant Syracuse could not play there.
As a result, the Orange ended up getting shipped out west, far away from home, and as a result, came back home one weekend too early. In short, location can be a huge advantage.
This is why the Syracuse Orange this past season had it for the taking. Two games in Pittsburgh and then playing the regional final in Boston. Syracuse didn't have to leave "Orange Country" in order to make it to New Orleans. The last time Syracuse received such a favorable draw was in 2003, when the Orange played two games in Boston and then two games in Albany, only a two-hour drive from campus. The 2003 Syracuse team won the national championship.
These opportunities are not infinite. Teams must take advantage when they can and Syracuse could not capitalize on it in 2012-13.
Luckily for the Orange, it seems the basketball gods are smiling upon them sooner than you think. Next season, the team will have the talent to win a lot of games and contend for the Big East regular-season title. With some luck from the NCAA Selection Committee, they could find themselves playing second- and third-round games in Philadelphia and then two in New York City. Once again, never having to leave "Orange Country" on their way to the Final Four.
Only 192 more days until the start of the 2012-13 season. Who's ready?
How will the Syracuse Orange do in 2012-13? Here are five bold predictions.
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