Syracuse announced today that sophomore center Fab Melo will miss the NCAA Tournament, although the release didn’t provide any additional details other than to call it an “eligibility issue.”
Consequently, Melo was trending on Twitter within minutes, partly because of the impact on a number one seed but also because people were in a mad scramble to change their brackets before the NCAA Tournament starts this week.
Impact of Fab Melo’s Ineligibility on Syracuse
The best way to assess what Syracuse might look like without Melo is to examine the three games the Orange were forced to play without him earlier this year.
They finished 2-1 during that three-game stretch, beating Cincinnati and West Virginia but losing to Notre Dame. In those games, Syracuse posted offensive rebounding percentages 21.6, 34.2, and 18.5 compared to an average of 33.5 in conference play. On defense, two of the three opponents shot over their Big East average for effective field goal percentage defense, and they surrendered 15 offensive rebounds to Cincinnati and 19 to West Virginia, which was good for a 54.3 offensive rebounding percentage.
For a team lauded for their depth, Melo is really the one guy for which they don’t have a suitable replacement.
He ranks in the Top 10 in block percentage at 12.9 and also boasts an impressive offensive rebounding percentage. So while his 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds may not jump off the page, his impact on the game was far greater. Melo’s presence deterred opponents from attacking the rim, and he was the team’s most effective offensive rebounder by a fairly wide margin, which is a big deal for a team that doesn’t grab many offensive boards in the first place.
Throw in the fact that Syracuse was routinely unable to prevent offensive rebounds even with Melo in the lineup, and you would appear to have a one seed headed for an early exit.
Round of 32 Danger Lurking?
I don’t think anyone assumes this will result in a 16 seed beating a one for the first time, but many are pointing to a potential second round matchup with Kansas State as a possible stumbling block. To be fair, some were calling for that even before the news about Melo.
The Wildcats rank seventh in offensive rebounding percentage at 40.7 percent, and given their shooting percentages, there will likely be plenty of misses to go around. You can count on K-State aggressively attacking the glass against the Syracuse zone, which lends itself to block out issues. That’s definitely a concern, but it isn’t like Kansas State is some kind of offensive juggernaut. The Wildcats are in the middle of the pack in terms of two- and three-point shooting, and they are downright terrible from the free throw line.
So while it’s reasonable to connect the dots and think Syracuse loses, I’m not quite ready to say they lose that game. A lot depends on whether or not they change up their style with Melo out of the lineup. Guys like Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita can’t truly replace Melo, so why try? The Orange would be better served to go a bit smaller and give more playing time to guys like C.J. Fair and James Southerland, then use that increased quickness and length to press more.
Obviously it’s a bit late in the year to completely switch up your style, but against a young point guard and a team that has struggled with turnovers like K-State, it makes a lot of sense. Whether that would carry them all the way to the Final Four is probably another matter, but it might at least get them to the Sweet Sixteen.
Sweet 16 and Beyond
If ‘Cuse gets past that game, it would seem their most likely opponent is Vanderbilt (at least based on my picks), and the Commodores aren’t killers on the boards by any means. They do match up well against Syracuse’s zone though based on their long-range shooting. After that, the Orange would potentially run up against Ohio State, who just mauls people on the offensive glass. As I said in my regional preview even before Melo went down, that has huge game for Jared Sullinger written all over it.
So in the end, does the loss of Melo make it unlikely we’ll be seeing Syracuse in New Orleans? Yes. But it also isn’t a death sentence for the Orange making it out of the first weekend like some would have you believe.