All week, we’ve been focusing on the “what-ifs” of Syracuse Orange sports seasons. Especially on the men’s basketball side, these are not the teams that lost by a hair, or even made the Final Four. They’re the bigger what-ifs featuring various branch realities could have been for some immensely talented teams.
The 1988-89 team was loaded, but ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Illinois. When we looked back at the 2009-10 team, the problem was two-fold: Syracuse lost to Butler, but you could argue only did so because they didn’t have Arinze Onuaku in the lineup. That Orange squad was a top-three team in the country that season. There’s a very compelling case to be made for them to win it all with A.O. playing.
Last up is a team that’s frustrating for a multitude of reasons — perhaps more so than either of the former two. We’re talking about the 2011-12 team.
While the 2009-10 squad came out of nowhere to become a national title contender, the 2011-12 team came into the season with some incredibly high expectations. Rick Jackson was the lone major departure from a disappointing 2010-11 season that saw SU upset by Marquette in the second round of the NCAAs, so there was reason to see how this could go very right. And that was before we truly understood what Fab Melo (R.I.P.) would become at center.
Starting the season off ranked fifth, the Orange were No. 1 by mid-December, and won 20 games in a row before finally falling to Notre Dame. Melo was not a dynamic scorer, but rounded into a shutdown presence in the zone, while blocking nearly three shots per game. He took home defensive player of the year honors in the Big East and removed an entire aspect of opponents’ games by keeping them completely out of the paint. The rest of the team showed itself plenty capable on both ends, and wound up winning 30 of 31 regular season games, before dropping a lax effort to Cincinnati in the Big East semifinals.
Kentucky, the eventual champ with Anthony Davis on the roster, was seen as the dominant team that season. But Syracuse was ever bit a contender as the Wildcats — so long as Melo was on the floor, anyway. Both squads only lost just two games prior to the Big East Tournament. As you know, it was the Wildcats that would not lose another, however.
The news that Fab Melo wouldn’t play in the NCAA Tournament came after Selection Sunday, but before games got going. SU still had plenty of talent, but was not the same team at all, as we’d quickly learn in a tight win over UNC-Asheville in round one. Things got back to normal in the next game vs. Kansas State, and then the Orange miraculously survived a three-point barrage from Wisconsin. Despite lacking their most game-changing player in Melo, SU got to the Elite 8 anyway.
You know what happened next, as Syracuse lost an ugly 77-70 game that was tightly officiated yet they still had every chance to win. It’s that fact, plus the dominance this team displayed with Melo in the lineup, that sells Orange fans so strongly on what could’ve been — even if it seems unlikely they’d have been able to beat Davis and Kentucky in a potential final.
Still, they COULD HAVE HAD A SHOT. And that’s what hurts most, really, when looking back. Melo’s suspension was brutal, and made more so by what nearly happened without him. Given the NCAA sanction issues that were to come, you wouldn’t be the only person wondering why we didn’t just let it ride anyway and take whatever punishment later came with it (since we were hammered without a banner, what does it really matter if he played now, in hindsight?).
Because of the competition level they’d be up against, I’d argue that the 2010 team was the one with the better chance to win a title if not for losing their center. However, the 2012 team was probably the better group and the one that we’d have loved to see get a chance to prove it against that excellent Kentucky squad. If they lost, at least we would’ve known. Now, we’re always left to wonder about that season, and another incomplete picture of a championship-caliber season.
Making the Final Four with a less talented team the following season was fitting, in many ways. It shows how random this sport really is, and how damn hard it is to win a title. It doesn’t stop me from thinking about how incredible this last decade could’ve been, though. And how close Syracuse was to having four Final Four trips in a seven-year stretch. Alas...