When Fab Melo returns to the Syracuse lineup on Saturday, everyone expects the Orange to be a different team than the one that has averaged a hair over 60 points per game in his absence. But Syracuse will not return as the team he left three games ago; it will be better. Despite its struggles, SU has grown as a team with Melo on the sideline.
During Melo’s three-game suspension, CJ Fair stepped into the starting lineup. Rakeem Christmas slid over from power forward to center. Dion Waiters struggled to find his rhythm on offense. These changes and others that occurred sans-Melo will ultimately help the Orange on its quest for a national title.
The biggest benefit the Orange received without Melo in the lineup was the experience Christmas and Baye Keita gained. Playing a combined 15.7 minutes per game more than they averaged with Melo playing, Christmas and Keita struggled at times, but they also displayed flashes of promise for the future.
After getting pushed around by Jack Cooley against Notre Dame, Christmas responded with nine rebounds (four offensive) against the bigger Yancy Gates in SU’s win against Cincinnati. Keita, who was essentially benched against the heavy Bearcat frontline, came back to grab five rebounds and block three shots in 25 minutes of action against West Virginia.
Watching Syracuse struggle without Melo, it is easy to forget that he averaged just 22.6 minutes per game and had only one game all season where he played more than 30 minutes. For Syracuse to make a deep tournament run, it will need to sustain its momentum during the half to quarter of the game Melo is on the bench. The experience that Christmas and Keita gained playing without him will go a long way to improving their play when he takes a breather in the tournament.
Waiters’ inefficacy on offense may have been the most surprising change during Melo’s three-game absence. He was shooting 52.3 percent from the field the first 20 games of the season, but he shot just 25.0 percent the last three.
Waiters is a microcosm of the SU offense as a whole. He is at his best when he is in transition and, while still good, he is not nearly as efficient when the pace is slowed down and he is forced to work out of a half-court offense.
During Melo’s absence, Syracuse was forced to play far more half-court offense, averaging nearly 10 fewer fast break points per game (6.7 vs. 16.6). This hurt Waiters’ offensive output more than any other player, but it allowed other SU players to step into the “go-to” player role.
Both Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph made improvements to their scoring averages in the past three games, with Joseph leading the way in the Cincinnati win and Triche saving the day against West Virginia. Waiters’ confidence will never waiver, but it will help the Orange come tournament time to have Joseph and Triche also feeling like they can take over the game if need be.
Melo’s suspension could have been a coming out party for Fair, as he moved into the starting line up for the first time in his career. But looking at Fair’s statistics from the past three games, it easy to find disappointment. He was handed more responsibility and averaged fewer points (6.3 vs. 8.6), fewer offensive rebounds (1.7 vs. 2.0) and fewer total rebounds (4.3 versus 5.2).
But Fair actually played fewer minutes as a starter than he did as a reserve (23.0 mpg versus 25.5 mpg). The bigger beneficiary was James Southerland, who went from averaging 15.8 minutes per game with Melo in the line up to 22.3 without him. With the increased minutes, Southerland led the team in scoring with 15 points against Notre Dame and finished second on the team in rebounding with 7 against Cincinnati.
Melo’s absence allowed Southerland to step into a larger role and continue his development into a dependable option. Look for him to continue to play more minutes, especially if opponents play zone. Fair, for his part, will continue to be Syracuse’s steadiest player. While did not put up flashier numbers as a starter, he continued to play the same solid basketball he has played all year, committing just one turnover.
There is no shortage of statistics that quantify the importance of Melo’s return to the Syracuse lineup. Without him, the Orange averaged 20 fewer points, nine fewer in the paint, eight fewer off turnovers, and seven fewer off second chances. The Orange even shot 10 percent worse from behind the three-point arc. While his return is the most important news for SU’s national title hopes, the experience the team gained in his absence may end up being the difference.