As Syracuse closed out its preseason with an 87-69 victory over Saint Rose (DII) Tuesday night, a lot of questions still remained about the No. 5 ranked Orange. The biggest question, literally and figuratively, still focused on whether or not 7-foot center Fab Melo is ready to be a regular force down low.
Although submitting a final answer after two exhibition games against far inferior opponents would be extremely premature, his combined 39 minutes of action suggest he’s ready to shoulder the majority of the load at the center position for the Orange.
After watching a drastically slimmed down Melo score 12 points and haul down 8 boards in a 79-49 exhibition win over Cal State LA on November 1, coach Jim Boeheim said, “I think he’s just in better condition. He’s more ready and he’s understanding more of what it is about. I think he’s in better shape and better able to get up and down. He’s always had good skills. He’s just got to get up and down better and I think he’s doing that. He’s very active, going after balls and there are a lot of positives…”
Tuesday night’s game against the Golden Knights featured more positives from the reinvented Melo. During the first five minutes of action he knocked down a 17-footer, avoided fouls on quicker and smaller guards, got his hands on loose balls and rebounds, and called for the ball in the post – all things he didn’t or couldn’t do as a freshman.
As a matured, svelte sophomore, Melo has a swagger about him. He no longer looks goofy and out of place like he did during his disappointing freshman season. He is talking to teammates and officials. Not just clowning around like the jokester he’s known to be, but yelling with a bark. That intensity should serve him well once Big East play begins and he battles larger, more physical opponents.
That’s when we’ll know if the bark has bite or if the expectations are just too high. Even coach Boeheim, whose favorite sideline activity last season seemed to be berating Melo, expects a lot from him and wants the big guy on the floor.
“I think he understands what he shouldn’t do. And that first foul was silly because we aren’t screening out that far trying to get a shot. I thought he was much better in what he needs to do,” Boeheim said during the postgame press conference when asked how important it was that Melo avoided an early second foul.
Coaching praise for being able to stay in the game isn’t quite awe-inspiring, but after logging 9.9 minutes per contest last season, it’s definitely a start. Still, I kept waiting for Melo to dominate the game.
Not to take anything away from Saint Rose, who was inexplicably tied with the Orange at halftime, but its tallest player at 6-feet-7 barely reached Melo’s shoulder. The big man should dominate games like that. He should assert himself as even more of a force than he did last night. And the difference this year, compared to last, is he actually looks like he has that capability and will garner those expectations.
When Syracuse was trailing 30-27 in the first half, Melo was calling for the ball on the block. At the start of the second he was picking and rolling, finishing one off with a strong jam. He then ran the full length of the floor to intercept a pass that could have easily led to a fast break finish for Saint Rose. He seemed to be everywhere on the court and was doing a little bit of everything for the Orange. He was a force instead of a farce. It was refreshing and heartening for a player who was so highly recruited out of high school and stumbled out of the gate last year.
With the added size around him in the form of freshman Rakeem Christmas, and with fellow sophomore Baye Moussa Keita backing him up and logging quality minutes, the Orange have seemingly figured out how to replace graduated senior center Rick Jackson.
The options might take some of the pressure off of Melo, but his teammates know they need him to thrive if they will. They need his size and presence on the defensive end to allow the wings to gamble for steals and play the passing lanes. Offensively they need him to continue to finish their passes and follow-up their misses.
With the rest of last year’s team back plus three prized recruits Syracuse has the depth, talent, and experience to succeed. The new-look Fab Melo could be the 7-foot piece that holds it all together. The encouraging thought emerging from the preseason for the Orange is that he looks ready, willing and able to be that piece.