SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Fab Melo had a lot to think about after the Syracuse Orange’s dispiriting loss to Marquette in the third round of last season’s NCAA tournament.
The 7-footer had arrived from Brazil expected to make an immediate impact. Instead, after a season riding the bench, fans and media were already labeling him a bust.
Melo didn’t spend the offseason sulking, though. Instead, he worked.
“I ran a lot. I lifted weights. I changed my diet. I stopped eating after nine o’clock. I feel great,” Melo said. “Now I’m able to run the court, I’m able to help my teammates.”
The noticeably slimmed-down center did that Saturday, anchoring a smothering 2-3 zone defense that held the visiting Fordham Rams to 35 percent shooting.
Only two Fordham players scored in double figures. The Rams’ best player, 6-foot-7 forward Chris Gaston, finished with 13 points, five rebounds and four assists.
But he shot only 4 of 12 and turned the ball over four times.
Syracuse’s big men were key, holding the Rams to just 24 points in the paint on the game, and only 10 in the first half, when Melo played the bulk of his minutes.
“Last year he couldn’t stay in the game because his defense wasn’t good enough,” SU head coach Jim Boeheim said. “We couldn’t afford to have him in the game.”
That’s changed, now.
Melo was an intimidating presence on the interior of the zone, blocking four shots and pulling down four boards to go with four points. He played stellar one-on-one defense in the post, getting into position early and choking off any path to the basket.
He didn’t pick up his first foul until nearly five minutes had gone by in the second half, a welcome sight for Orange fans and, doubtless, for his coach.
His teammates have noticed the improvement, too.
“[Melo’s] moving well, he’s getting off his feet quicker, he’s jumping quicker, and that’s what we need him to do. The whole back side of that zone is key,” forward Kris Joseph said. “You look at our zone and if all our hands are up and if we’re moving like we’re supposed to it’s a scary thing to go against.”
The Orange have the perimeter length and quickness to make Boeheim’s trademark zone work better than it has in years. But the major question mark coming into the season was the team’s untested big men: whether Melo, fellow sophomore Baye Keita and highly touted freshman Rakeem Christmas could fill the void left by departed center Rick Jackson.
If early returns are any indication, Fab Melo is ready to step up.
“I knew I had to work a lot [after] last year. I had a lot of hype. I didn’t ask for the hype, but the media gave it to me,” Melo said. “I knew I had the potential so I just had to work.”