If the Orange want more than 34,000 people to rise to their feet, Syracuse will need Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita to stand tall.
The Orange will host Villanova (16-2, 4-1 Big East) on Saturday in what could be an NCAA record-breaking crowd. Last February, the Syracuse-Villanova game drew 34,616, which was an NCAA record for largest on-campus crowd to see a college basketball game.
Saturday could draw even more fans. More than 33,000 tickets have already been sold to see the Orange (18-1, 5-1) after SU lost to Pittsburgh on Monday.
“The crowd will be like [the Pitt game],” guard Brandon Triche said. “But everyone will be on our side.”
True. But for it to have a raucous crowd, SU will need more from its centers.
Melo started at center for Syracuse against Pitt. Panthers forward Nasir Robinson immediately scored five points in the paint in the first two minutes, and Melo was benched.
SU coach Jim Boeheim inserted fellow freshman center Keita. He struggled as well, lasting just six minutes as Pittsburgh eventually opened up a 19-0 lead.
With few options left, Boeheim benched Keita and moved forward Rick Jackson to center. Jackson, who played 39 minutes, would remain at center while Melo and Keita never got back in the game.
“Our centers got off to a horrendous start,” Boeheim said. “The guys are young. They’ve got a lot to learn. They were not ready tonight. They got us in a big hole right away, and we had to go small.”
The final stat line for the two freshmen didn’t look pretty. The two played combined eight minutes with one shot (a miss), one foul and a plus-minus rating of negative 13.
“They got too many layups,” guard Scoop Jardine said. “They buried us in the paint.”
Once the centers were out of the game, SU went on a 17-0 run. Eventually, SU tied the game at 41 before Pitt held on for a 74-66 win.
In fairness to Syracuse’s freshmen center duo, there were other reasons why Pittsburgh raced out to an early lead.
“The guards didn’t do a good job defending the top of the zone,” Boeheim said. “We let too much penetration get in there, and they took advantage of that.”
The Orange was also without leading scorer Kris Joseph due a concussionhe suffered after banging his head on the floor against Cincinnati.
Joseph practiced on Thursday and is officially listed as day-to-day.
“You play with what you have,” Boeheim said. “Injuries happen.”
Wesley Cheng is the Editor in Chief for The Juice Online.