BY JORDAN O’DONNELL
Well, I hope you didn’t hand in your brackets yet, because Syracuse delivered news Tuesday afternoon that could potentially change the entire complexion of March Madness.
The school announced that seven-foot center Fab Melo is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. Syracuse did not elaborate why Melo will not play, but the news delivers a massive blow to the championship hopes of the Orange, the No. 1 seed in the East Region.
Melo is the best low-post presence on a team that is poor at rebounding. Syracuse averages 35.3 boards per game, good for 124th in the nation. By comparison, the other No. 1 seeds –North Carolina (45.2 per game), Kentucky (39.2 per game) and Michigan State (38.2 per game) – are ranked 1st, 14th and 26th, respectively.
Melo averaged 5.8 rebounds per game, but most perhaps more importantly, he tallied about three blocks per contest. Without him, Syracuse is much more vulnerable to inside play. Barring an absolute stunner, the Orange will win its first game and advance to the “third” round, where it will meet either Kansas State or Southern Mississippi. Many analysts expect Kansas State to be Syracuse’s opponent. K-State has already demonstrated it can be successful against teams with weak inside presence; they’ve beaten Missouri twice.
Vanderbilt, already a trendy Sweet Sixteen pick after its win over Kentucky in the SEC Tournament final, is quickly becoming a cliché pick to upset Syracuse and advance to the Elite Eight. Shooting 39 percent from three-point range on the season, good for 21st in the nation, the Commodores have the ability to overcome Syracuse’s signature 2-3 zone by simply shooting over it.
But beyond merely speculating how the Orange’s potential opponents could benefit from Melo’s absence, empirical evidence also supports a belief that Cuse will struggle. Melo was suspended for three games during the regular season for academic issues (some suggest this is why Melo is ineligible for the tournament). During that three-game stretch, Syracuse lost to Notre Dame (its only regular season loss) and needed a controversial call at the end of the game to survive a scare against Cincinnati. The statistics back up Syracuse’s uninspiring performance during that period: the team’s rebound differential was -11 per game in Melo’s absence, compared to -0.4 per game when he played. Notre Dame out-rebounded Syracuse 37-24 in their upset victory.
Syracuse still possesses the talent to advance to the Final Four, led by Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Trische and Dion Waiters. Those four will have to step up their games to overcome the loss of Melo in the middle. But most importantly, freshman Rakeem Christmas and junior James Southerland will have to emerge as viable presences under the basket.
Of course, even if Syracuse does advance to New Orleans, it could very well face one of two favorites to come out of the Midwest Region in the national semifinal—North Carolina or Kansas. Each have their own monsters down low to contend with, including UNC’s Tyler Zeller (ACC Player of the Year) and John Henson (ACC Defensive Player of the Year) and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson (Big 12 Player of the Year).
It’s debatable whether Syracuse had been the favorite to win the national title on Selection Sunday. Without Melo, the road to their second championship in the last decade will be undoubtedly tougher.