Two days after learning about the ineligibility of sophomore center Fab Melo, the No. 1-seeded Syracuse Orange will begin NCAA Tournament play Thursday as they face No. 16 UNC-Asheville Bulldogs in a second-round contest at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. (3:10 p.m. ET on truTV). The winner advances to the third round to face either No. 8 Kansas St. Wildcats or No. 9 Southern Miss. Golden Eagles on Saturday.
On Tuesday, the Orange (31-2) received some unexpected news, as the Syracuse Athletic Department released a statement saying Melo, the squad's leading rebounder and shot blocker, will be out for the NCAA Tournament. According to multiple reports, Melo's ineligibility mainly stems from an academic problem from the Fall semester that was initially resolved in Feb., however, was again looked at and it was discovered some of the work wasn't done.
The lack of having a 7-foot center, who earned Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors, is a huge blow to Syracuse, especially on the defensive end. Over the course of the Orange's historic regular season, Melo was the defensive enforcer in the middle of the Syracuse's patented 2-3 zone.
"He's one of the best shot blockers in the country and you're going to miss a guy like that," said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim Wednesday. "Nobody has anybody quiet like him, he's a tremendous physical presence and everybody else is going to have to play better defense."
Whether Melo's absence will lead to a first-round upset to the Bulldogs, who will be striving to become the first ever No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1, will not be determined until late Thursday afternoon.
In the meantime, the Orange still feature seven very good players that can make up some of what Melo brings to the hardcourt.
Led by senior forward Kris Joseph, who's netting a team-best 13.8 points per game, and sophomore guard Dion Waiters, who's the second leading scorer with 12.6 ppg, Syracuse still has the talent and depth to make a run at the school's fifth Final Four appearance, which has been the team's goal since the start of the season.
"One thing everybody was saying about our team is our depth and how deep we're as a team," said senior point guard Scoop Jardine, who's averaging 8.3 ppg and has an assists to turnover ratio of 2.3. "This is an opportunity for everybody. We have to believe in ourselves and everybody has to step it up a notch and we should be fine."
"This is the situation where if he was able to play and he got hurt in the first game," said Joseph, "we would need to play without him. So, that's the way we kinda of see it."
The scenario of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and entering it without a center is, surprisingly, not new to either Jardine or Joseph. In 2009-10, which featured both as sophomores, the Orange finished the regular season 28-3, earned a top-seed in its region but didn't have bigman Arinze Onuaku, who was out because of a quad injury. That team was bounced in the Sweet 16 by the Butler Bulldogs, who ended up losing to the Duke Blue Devils in the National Championship game.
The difference between that team and this team, said Boeheim Wednesday, is depth of the roster.
"We were really playing seven players that year, and it was fine because they had multiple positions. But when Arinze went out Ricky (junior Rick Jackson) had to go to center full-time. So, that took away our power forward; and Kris Joseph, who was the Sixth-Man of the Year in the country had to start, we lost our sixth-man."
Trying to make up for Melo's production for the second time this year will be the trio of freshman forward Rakeem Christmas, sophomore center Baye Keita and junior forward James Southerland, who each averaged less minutes than Joseph, Jardine, Waiters, Melo and junior guard Brandon Triche.
The concern, however, is that none of those three combined will make up for Melo's production, as Keita and Christmas will enter the contest against UNC-Asheville averaging no more than 3.0 ppg, 3.0 rebounds per game and 12 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Southerland is netting 6.6 ppg and collecting 3.3 rpg, but has been very streaky during the season.
Earlier in the season when Melo missed games, Boeheim was forced to use the trio in the lineup more, however, the results were mixed, as the team went 2-1 overall but the three bigmen SU faced -- Notre Dame's Jack Cooley, Cincinnati Yancy Gates and West Virginia's Kevin Jones -- combined to average 17.7 ppg and 9.3 rpg. The Orange were out-rebounded 118-86.
However, Boeheim and the rest of the SU players have confidence in their abilities.
"I think these guys didn't (accomplish a 31-2 record) with one player, they did it with 10 players," said Boeheim. "And now, they have nine left and I expect them to be fully ready to play tomorrow."
And as for worrying about the loss of Melo and what college hoops experts might think of the Orange's chances now of winning its second National Championship, Jardine says the goal is the same -- ignore the critics and get ready to play basketball.
"We don't pay it no mind," said Jardine. "The only thing we're worrying about is winning and advancing."
"They were saying we weren't a good team when we had Fab. That's everybody's opinion, but, we still believe in ourselves and we believe we're capable of wining the National Championship."