Only in this amazing statistical year of 31 wins, a tenth Big East regular season title, a top tier ranking all season, and a one seed in the NCAA tournament could it be this frustrating to be a Syracuse Orange fan.
If it's not the Bernie Fine scandal and its media crush, then it's the law suits, or the drug test scandal (by the way, what the hell? One week ago that was main stream and this week it's all but forgotten). Now, of course, it's the re-suspending of Fab Melo. Gone for the rest of the season and, most likely, done as a Syracuse player. Really, after this season, could SU start the tourney any other way?
Just about every one of us has adjusted their brackets after the Melo news hit. No way Syracuse could win the title, or even make it to New Orleans, without the seven footer. Let me be clear, I understand the logic. The quantifiable stats say in three games without Melo this season, Syracuse scored almost 9 points less in the paint per game and grabbed 12 less boards in those games. Then there's the somewhat unquantifiable stats with Melo. The opponents shots he adjusts just by being on the floor. His presence as a of a seven foot center with good passing skills and court awareness on offense. Losing that will be difficult to overcome. But, does that mean it's a lock SU won't make it any further than they would have with the Brazilian?
Let's look at possible future opponents for Syracuse, assuming all the better seeds advance. We'll eschew UNC-Asheville as I already previewed the Bulldogs and with or without Melo Syracuse should beat a 16 seed. Moving on:
*8 Seed Kansas State (Potential
SecondThird Round Opponent) - We've heard since Sunday that the Wildcats could own the glass against an SU team even with Melo. Well...that's probably true. With four players averaging 4 or more rebounds per game, the Wildcats out rebound opponents by close to 5 a game. Junior guard Rodney MacGruber McGruder and senior forward Jamar Samuels each average over 2 offensive rebounds a game. Then there's junior forward Jordan Henriquez, a six foot 11 big who blocks over 2 shots per game. With Syracuse struggling on the boards prior to Melo's getting the boot, the Wildcats were probably hoping for a meat grinder type of game with the Orange.
The other scary part about Frank Martin's team is the intensity level the Wildcats bring. A force the action type of game that could either play right into Syracuse's plan of running and scoring or could force SU into a lot of turnovers (and just as many offensive sets starting near the half court line). With Melo in this game I feel confident Syracuse could win, ugly sure, but win nonetheless. Without him, SU may be in serious trouble.
Fear Factor- Medium High - K State can board, but they aren't loaded with talent and they lack experience at key positions, specifically at point. SU could very well lose this game, but I actually think this could be a tourney defining situation. Similar to 2003 and Syracuse's comeback win against Oklahoma State.
*4 Seed Vanderbilt (Potential Sweet 16 Opponent) - The trendy hot pick. The Commodores are coming off an SEC tourney championship win over No. 1 overall seed Kentucky. I've heard and read plenty of experts picking Vanderbilt to make it to the Elite Eight. In fact, Digger Phelps thinks Vandy is all but a lock to make it to the regional championship now that Melo is officially out. Really? The Commodores rank in the 180s in team rebounding.
That doesn't mean Vanderbilt can't rebound, they're just not exactly Georgetown circa 1985-90. They average a rebound less per game than Syracuse. Vanderbilt relies, mainly, on three players to hit the glass. Senior forward Lance Goulbourne averages 6.9 rebounds a game. Statistically Goulbourne is followed by senior forward Jeffery Taylor (5.8 rpg) and senior center Festus Ezeli (5.5 rbg). Ezeli stands six foot 11 and averages two blocks per game as well.
Obviously, those three players will be key to get a body on for Syracuse. Yet the bigger worry will be making sure the Orange wing defenders rotate quickly. Should these two match up, SU will need to close out on shooters because Vandy is dandy from deep. Ranking number twelve in the nation in threes made per game, Vandy averages close to 9 triples every time out. They're not just gunners, the SEC tourney champs hit close to 40 percent! Junior guard John Jenkins makes close to 45 percent of his threes, while senior forward Jeffery Taylor hits at 43 percent from distance.
Fear Factor- High - Despite a mediocre season, there is a reason why Vanderbilt was preseason top 10 and won the SEC tourney. They're playing well and could be one of those teams that lights up SU's zone. Of course, Connecticut withstanding, a lot of teams that get hot in early March cool off by the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. A tough game, but a winnable game for the Orange should it materialize.
*2 Seed Ohio State (Potential Elite Eight Opponent) - Honestly, if Syracuse makes it here, there is no reason to believe playing without Melo would stop them from beating the (loaded) Buckeyes.
Fear Factor - See Above
Every round of the NCAA tourney is difficult. Even UNC Asheville isn't exactly your dad's usual 16 seed. From the time SU's draw was announced I thought it would be a tough road. Manageable but difficult. Still, despite the latest scandal and being a (big) man down, Syracuse is talented enough to go far. New Orleans far? I don't know, but given this season I wouldn't rule out anything.