Much has been made of Syracuse's depth this season, but prior to these past three games few people realized how absolutely irreplaceable Fab Melo is for this team. At every other position, we have enough depth that if a guy is having a bad night or (Boeheim forbid) someone got injured, we would manage. Kris and Dion may be our best players, but if one of them disappeared, this team would still be awfully tough to beat. Not so with Fab. Now those skeptical of my position will point to his relatively meager 7.2 PPG and 5.7 RPG and tell you that the combination of BMK and Christmas should be able to come close to making up for his lost production with their increased minutes. Those people would be wrong. And here's why....
Why Fab Is the Missing Link in our Offense:
Sure, at 7.2PPG, Fab is only the 7th leading scorer on our team, and it's not as if we ran our offense through him, so one might think that missing Fab would only hurt us on defense and rebounding, but they'd be wrong. In our first 7 Big East games (with Fab) we averaged 78.57PPG and in our three games without Fab we've averaged only 63.33PPG, more than 15PPG less. Now some might say that we're just shooting the ball worse, and it's true we have shot the ball poorly, particularly from 3 over the past three games (25.4% from 3), BUT we haven't shot the ball well from deep all season (32.2% in the first 7 Big East games with Fab, and that's including the 10-17 game against Providence, take that outlier game away and we've actually shot the ball better over our past 3 games than in 6 of our first 7 B.E. games). So what gives? Well, part of it has to do with defense and rebounding (more on this below), but much of it has to do with what Fab brings to our offense... which unlike Christmas and BMK is something.
In our 3 games without Fab, we're essentially playing 4 v 5 on offense, as neither player has been any sort of threat to score. They set high ball screens, and virtually never roll. Fab on the other hand had become incredibly adept at either rolling or slipping screens when the help defender hedges on our guards, allowing him to roll to the hoop forcing the opposing defense to make a decision. If they cheat on the help, they'll leave Fab virtually unguarded and our guards have been good at finding him for alley-oops OR they have to play honest and our guards get a step on their defender. It's a little thing, but Fab's ability to be an offensive threat forced opposing defenses to defend all 5 of our players the whole possession. His presence was instrumental in opening things up for our guards. Believe me, it's no coincidence that Dion has suddenly started to struggle to score in the three games Fab has been gone. With Rak or BMK, opposing defenses are helping on the pick and rolls and making it much more difficult for our guards to get into the lane. Now perhaps this becomes a moot point if we were able to knock down open 3's, but we haven't done that with or without Fab, so that's neither here nor there.
What Fab Means for our Defense and Rebounding:
Fab's average of 5.7RPG isn't a number that jumps out at you, but our -11 rebounding margin in our 3 games without Fab certainly does. So why has Fab's absence, decimated our rebounding? It's simple, the center of the zone is instrumental in rebounding, even if he's rarely the guy who grabs the board. If we're playing our zone the right way, the opposing team is likely to miss in 1 of the 2 ways: 1. We force them to take a long contested 3 pointer, which leads to long rebounds that our forwards and guards are able to grab (if and only if, the center is doing a good job boxing out the opposing center). 2. We force one of their players to take a contested shot from the foul line or elbow (and the center is the one contesting the shot, so the forwards are likely to grab the rebounds). So if our zone is playing well and we're forcing misses, we're forcing misses that don't go to the center. So set that 5.7RPG aside. Rick Jackson was always good for double digit rebounds last season when he was playing the 4, but in games where BMK and Fab both struggled and Rick had to play the 5, he averaged almost half as many rebounds. That's just how the zone works. So what has happened the past 3 games on the glass? We're still forcing a lot of misses, but neither Keita nor Christmas has been able to keep the opposing center (or forward depending on how they've attacked the zone) off the glass, and if our center can't keep their big off the glass, then KJ and Fair and James are suddenly trying to rebound the ball against a taller, stronger, heavier player. And they're doing a bad job of it.
Fab's contributions to our zone defense are a bit more obvious. His ability to absolutely dominate the paint changes the way opposing teams attack the zone. They struggle to take it inside because of his shot-blocking presence. They rush shots from the foul line and elbow because Fab is so mobile on his close-outs. And the more dominating a presence Fab is in the post, the more our guards and wings are able to extend the zone, which leads to more steals and break-aways and fast break hoops. You can gamble on the perimeter if you know Fab has your back. There's also the obvious additional 5 fouls Boeheim has to work with, because typically when any of our bigs gets into foul trouble, they're neutered out there and much less effective. That was a problem today, obviously not so with another 5 fouls go give.
So without Fab out there, it's not as though our offense and defense don't have the ability to be successful, it's just they can't be successful in the way we grew accustomed to over the first 20 games of the season. Even though our zone has continued to create turnovers and force bad shots, we're giving up too many second (and third) chance opportunities, and opponents are able to score around the rim with much greater ease. That, coupled with our decline in second chance opportunities (just over 4 fewer offensive rebounds a game since Fab has been gone) and opposing defenses ability to help on pick and rolls without fear of our center scoring, is why we've struggled over the past 3 games. Fab may not be our best player, but he's our most irreplaceable one. His presence (or lack thereof) is the difference between a Sweet 16 caliber team and one that is a serious threat to win the National Championship.