One of the biggest knocks on Syracuse all season is their lack of a go-to guy. While Fab Melo certainly doesn’t fit that bill, he might just be the Orange’s most irreplaceable player. Melo didn’t travel with the team, reportedly due to academic issues, and his absence proved costly as Syracuse’s undefeated season came to an end Saturday night.
The game got off to a poor start from the very beginning. Scoop Jardine missed a layup off the opening tip and then Notre Dame freshman Pat Connaughton knocked down a 3-pointer on the other end. This would be a theme throughout the first half. The Orange struggled on offense, shooting under 30 percent in the first half and the Irish were knocking down the deep shots.
But don’t let anyone frame the 3-point shooting as a fluke. Sure, there was Scott Martin, who was shooting 17 percent coming into the game, knocking down his two 3-point attempts, but this was a product of poor defense. Notre Dame hit 6 of 10 3-pointers in the first half with 8 of those being extremely good looks. This was bound to happen. The Orange’s perimeter defense has been inconsistent all season but it hadn’t burned them until last night. There were games against Marquette and Villanova where those teams got off plenty of good looks but just couldn’t knock the shots down.
The early deficit was not a product of Melo’s absence but it did prevent Syracuse from ever mounting a serious comeback. The deficit allowed Notre Dame to remain patient in their own halfcourt set and they were able to limit their turnovers and thus keep Syracuse out of transition. Notre Dame had just 10 turnovers in the first 30 minutes and none of those led to easy buckets.
Forced to operate in the halfcourt set, Syracuse struggled. They shot 34 percent for the game and part of that had to do with having no post presence. It’s not that Melo is a huge offensive weapon, averaging a shade over 7 points a game, but not even having the threat of passing it to the post allows a defense to key in on the perimeter and on penetration.
Of course, it was on the defensive end that they really suffered without the big man. Melo is averaging 4 blocks a game in conference play and Syracuse had a season-low of 2 last night. Do you think 6’9, 250 lbs Jack Cooley puts up 17 points and 10 boards if Melo is playing? More importantly, does he grab 6 offensive rebounds and keep multiple possessions alive battling under the rim? Cooley had a career day toying with the undersized Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita.
And yet, despite no one on the Orange having a good game with the possible exception of James Southerland (he led the team with 15 points but grabbed just 2 rebounds) they were able to climb back in the game from down 18 and cut it to 6 points with under a minute remaining. This though, was in large part due to horrendous plays by Notre Dame. With starting point guard Eric Atkins in foul trouble, Notre Dame struggled to hold on to the ball and coughed it up 7 times in the final 10 minutes. Syracuse’s press allowed them to close the gap but they had their share of costly mistakes as well. Dion Waiters missed a layup, he also dribbled the ball off his knee and just about everyone put up an ill-advised 3-pointer.
Suddenly, not only are the Orange likely to lose the top ranking when the new polls come out on Monday but they face Cincinnati with the top mark in the Big East on the line. This could be a turning point in the season. Will the Orange respond and grow from this road trip or will they wilt under the pressure?