Current Syracuse team showing shades of 2010?

One week ago at this time, when the Selection Special first unveiled the brackets, I was pretty psyched for Syracuse’s chances to win the Tournament this year.

Yeah, there were potential matchup issues in the Sweet 16 with Vanderbilt, but overall, this is the deepest team Syracuse has ever fielded. I was ready to buy my ticket to New Orleans.

Then the Fab Melo debacle happened.

Like most other Syracuse fans, my initial reaction was panic. I’m pretty happy my office doesn’t have a window because I’m pretty sure I would have jumped out of it. Needless to say, my bracket changed significantly. A sure Final Four bid turned into a second-round loss.

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When it comes to cash-money, my head always trumps my heart and my loyalty.

I wasn’t the only one to feel this way. All of the national prognosticators discussed how much of a deathblow this was to Syracuse’s hope for another national title. Our boy Doug Gottlieb gave some very helpful advice how Syracuse should change everything if it is to make a run in the Tournament.

Thanks Doug, I knew you always had the Orange’s best interests at heart.

A funny thing happened this week once the Orange started playing in actual basketball games. After a lackluster performance against 16 seed UNC Ashville, Syracuse took on a Kansas State team, built to beat the Melo-less Orange and dispatched the Wildcats in convincing fashion.

As I was downing my green beer Saturday, I really wished I had gone with my heart and could take back my bracket. Well, I also picked Missouri to go to the finals, so that didn’t help either.

As every Syracuse fan knows, we have been here before. In this exact situation. Everyone talked about the 2010 season after Melo was suspended for the tournament this year. Top-seeded Syracuse loses star starting Center and goes into the Tournament with doubts about whether the team could advance past the opening weekend without him. Our humble little blog even discussed it before the Tournament began.

So far, the 2012 Tournament has played out the same as 2010. The Orange won its first-round game (though not as convincingly as it should have), and dismissed its second-round opponent, who was supposed to provide huge match-up problems to the undermanned Syracuse, in very convincing fashion.

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However, we also all remember how the 2010 season ended. Cinderella story Butler beat the Orange on its way to a national finals appearance.

Now that we have gotten to the point where our hopes came crashing down in 2010, it’s time to start asking the questions again. Will this season play out the same? Are we doomed to repeat our fate?

My answer, as the ultimate Syracuse pessimist, is actually no.

This year’s team, while sharing a large number of the same players as the 2010 team, is very different and is much better equipped to make a run at a Final Four than its predecessor.

In terms of the player we lost, while Fab Melo had a breakout season, he is no Arinze Onuaku. I know it’s strange to say as Melo is destined to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft, and Arinze Onuaku is…well, I have no idea where he is.

But Mark, you say, Melo is a defensive monster. That’s true; Melo was defensive player of the year in the Big East. But Onuaku was not a shabby defender himself that season. He did a solid job at anchoring the 2-3 zone, and while he was the not the shot-blocker Melo is, he was a big body and strong rebounder.

The key advantage Onuaku has over Melo is on the offensive end. Onuaku emerged that season as a dominant presence inside for the Orange who could not be replaced. He averaged more than 10 points a game that season, on a team that was offensively stacked, shooting an insane 67 percent from the field.

Melo is generally an afterthought on offense. Melo scored at least 14 points only once this season. Onuaku reached or exceeded that number on nine occasions during his senior season. While his shot-blocking will is missed, Melo was never a real factor offensively for the Orange.

Secondly, this year’s team is much deeper than the 2010 edition. In 2010 Syracuse generally ran a seven-man rotation, shortening it to six players in the loss to Butler. Only seven Orange players saw time in the loss to Butler, with DeShonte Riley only seeing five minutes of action and giving the Orange nothing.

When you don’t have depth, the loss of one player is felt much more than if you have a stable of capable subs who can make up for the production.

We all know about the depth this year’s team has. In fact, the two players who are carrying the Orange offensively, Dion Waiters and James Southerland, are not even starters. Then there is Rakeem Christmas, who most Orange fans would consider the eighth best player on this team.

On Saturday, Christmas showed some of the talent that got us excited when he signed to play here. His 11 rebounds and three blocks were essential in the Syracuse victory. In his two NCAA appearances, Christmas has grabbed 18 rebounds. DeShonte Riley grabbed 26 during the entire 2009-2010 season.

No, Christmas is not Fab Melo (yet), but when given minutes, he has shown that he can produce this season. Leading up to the NCAA Tournament, Christmas has recorded at least five rebounds in 10 games. The 2010 Orange had no bench player who could do that. As much as we questioned it throughout the season, aren’t we all glad that Christmas got that experience starting this season?

Every college basketball analyst this season has raved about Syracuse’s depth and the strength of the Syracuse bench. Why did everyone just forget about this when Melo was declared ineligible? If there is any team that could handle the loss of one player, it is this team.

Finally, the road ahead is not as difficult as in 2010.

Wisconsin is not Butler. That 2009 Butler team was no fluke. Butler was a top-level team in 2010 and was probably grossly under-seeded as a no. 4 seed that season. Now, Wisconsin is a good team. It is a battletested group from one of the top conferences in the nation that plays a style of basketball that makes the casual basketball fan want to jab their eyes out.

But there is nothing that is really frightening about this team. Matt Howard, Gordon Heyward and Shelvin Mack are more talented than any player currently on Wisconsin’s roster. Kansas State was better inside than this Wisconsin team, and Syracuse was able to handle the Wildcats with ease. I don’t see this Wisconsin team posing much of a problem.

Looking to the next game, potential Elite Eight opponents are not that scary.

Ohio State is a very good team, and JD Salinger is a force from the inside who could cause problems. However, that team can’t shoot, and as we all know, teams that can’t shoot from 3 generally don’t beat the Orange. Cincinnati is a team we are very familiar with. Very familiar with beating them without Fab Melo.

So, as the similarities do make me shudder, this team is much different than the team that left us disappointed in two years ago. I have every confidence that the loss of Melo is just another breathless overreaction common among the American sports fan today. But hey, it filled air-time on ESPN, so there’s that.

I’ll see you all in New Orleans.

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