Top-seeded Syracuse played its fourth game this season without its starting center Fab Melo and struggled against the 16th seeded UNC-Asheville before hanging on for a 72-65 win.
But Melo’s absence—he was declared ineligible on Tuesday—had little to do with Asheville nearly becoming the first team in NCAA history to topple a No. 1 seed in the round of 64.
“The fact that this game was close had nothing – nothing – to do with the center position,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “I thought our two centers did a great job inside.”
Freshman Rakeem Christmas started in place of Melo and played 25 minutes. He put up Melo-like numbers, with six points, seven rebounds (five offensive) and two blocks in 25 minutes.
His backup, Baye Keita, played 14 minutes and had four points and a rebound, as the Orange outrebounded the Bulldogs 33-31.
Both played in the place of Melo, who for the second time this season was declared ineligible. Melo, the Big East’s defensive player of the year, was averaging 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks a game. Melo missed three games earlier in the season, and the Orange went 2-1 in those games.
“I think Baye and Rakeem did a great job out the presence of Fab,” guard Scoop Jardine said. “For the most part it is about us and that’s all that matters right now.”
Instead, SU struggled in areas that Melo would not have any impact in.
Syracuse was just 5-for-23 from downtown.
Meanwhile, SU’s defense give up far too many open looks from 3-point land, as Asheville shot 9-for-23.
That resulted in the game being close the entire way. The Bulldogs took a 34-30 advantage and led 39-33 with 17:38 before an 8-1 run gave SU the lead less than three minutes later.
“We’ve been in situations before like this all season,” forward Kris Joseph said. “I think being part of those games early on in the season, in the Big East, prepped us for this game.”
But many of those games have been with Melo. With a significantly taller Kansas State team looming on Saturday, Melo’s absence may be more glaring.
“It’s about us,” Jardine said. “We love to have him, but it’s about us playing the game. We got a lot of guys that stepped up today.”
Brad Bierman contributed to this story with reporting from Pittsburgh.