Freshmen centers Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita may be playing less as the season goes on.
In Saturday’s game against Seton Hall, Keita and Melo played limited minutes for the second straight game as Syracuse hung on for a 61-56 win over the Pirates. Neither center played in the second half of Syracuse’s 70-58 win against Notre Dame on Jan. 1.
“Those two guys, we’re trying to get them as many minutes as we can every night,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
But the last two games have been close, and those minutes have shrunk.
Against the Pirates, Keita played 14 minutes off the bench and fouled out after scoring just two points and collecting three rebounds. Melo didn’t do much better, scoring two points and adding one defensive rebound in 11 minutes of play.
When either player was in the game, Syracuse was hurt on the defensive glass. Forward Jeff Robinson and center Herb Pope feasted on the two freshmen, combining for 36 rebounds, 14 of them on offense. For the game, the Orange was out-rebounded 43-30.
“We got out rebounded in the second half, and it hurt us,” forward Rick Jackson said. “That’s probably the main reason we were in a fight like that.”
For Melo, it has been a question of conditioning. The starting center has been playing through a leg injury for most of the season. It’s resulted in Melo struggling to get back on defense.
“(Seton Hall’s) first five, six, seven points was just transition,” Boeheim said. “He doesn’t get back. Our big guys have to help, and that leaves someone open.”
As for Keita?
“He’s struggling a little bit with plays he was making earlier in the year,” Boeheim said. “He had his hands on two or three rebounds he should have had. He’s not quite strong enough.”
Another reason Boeheim has refrained from playing the two is their lack of an offensive game. The Orange was outscored 34-22 in points in the paint.
“They don’t help us on offense at all,” Boeheim said. “And if they’re not helping us on defense, there’s no point for them to be in the game.”
Boeheim’s temporary — and perhaps season-long — remedy over the past two games has been to move Jackson to the center position and put in another wing such as James Southerland or C.J. Fair.
The move paid off in the win over Notre Dame as Jackson scored 12 points and added five rebounds. The senior had similar results against the Pirates with nine points and 14 rebounds.
“If our big guys come along, we would be able to avoid (putting Jackson at center), but they aren’t,” Boeheim said. “The good news is Ricky is pretty good in there and it gives us another offensive forward in the game.”
But there will be nights when Jackson will either be tired or in foul trouble. In those situations, Boeheim will need Keita and Melo to step up.
“We have to keep working with them,” Boeheim said. “They’re a work in progress.”
Wesley Cheng is the Editor in Chief for The Juice Online.