Behold this stat line: 7.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.0 BPG
That is the statistical void left in the wake of Fab Melo’s reported academic issues, which have prevented him from playing in the past two games for the Syracuse Orange.
After Saturday’s shellacking at the hands of Notre Dame, that void might as well have been 18 points, 15 rebounds and 6 blocks…at least it felt that big, as Melo’s absence was certainly noted.
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But, with the Orange getting back on track Monday against Cincinnati, we’re left to wonder: was it because Syracuse’s big fella was somewhere with his nose buried in a book on the SU hill instead of in the middle of a loose ball scrum? Is that why the Orange is no longer among the ranks of the unbeatens?
Even Scoop Jardine said as much after Saturday’s loss, opining, “Fab is the key to our defense. He’s an anchor. It wasn’t that, though. Our offense wasn’t going [Saturday]. Fab only averaged six points for us. That’s not too much points. You know, we missed him truly but we needed to make more shots regardless.”
After watching both games and taking a perusal of both box scores, sure, there are some things that should have been different with Melo in the middle of the 2-3 zone. For instance:
Syracuse was outrebounded 37-24 against Notre Dame. Rebounds were certainly directly affected by Melo not being in the game. Melo is the leading rebounder on the team, and his size alone is enough to sway those numbers back toward Syracuse to some degree. And when his center replacements, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita, total six rebounds, well let’s just say Jim Boeheim probably hoped for more.
Syracuse recorded just two blocked shots against Notre Dame. Melo averages three a game. There sure wasn’t a lot of physical presence defensively for Syracuse without him. Even though the Orange was only outscored 20-18 in the paint, the Irish seemed to be able to do whatever it wanted to do down low.
Without a doubt, those two stats would be different with Fab patrolling the paint. Now, maybe these next points would have been different with Melo in the game, maybe not. In hindsight, there is probably some indirect effect that was caused by him not being there.
The Orange shot just 34 percent from the field against Notre Dame and scored 22 points below its season average. Scoop’s right. Melo is not a go-to guy in the post. But he’s good for one or two lobs and maybe a putback or two a game, isn’t he? Those are sure to help out the percentages and the number on the scoreboard. Without him as a presence down low to keep the Irish honest, the Orange spent much of its day doing a weave outside the arc, and there was far too much one-on-one play from the perimeter guys. And to boot, Scoop was 0-for-5 from the floor and Kris Joseph was 4-for-12. When James Southerland is your leading scorer (15 points), the game probably didn’t go as the coaches drew it up.
Syracuse got only 11 points off of 17 Notre Dame turnovers. The press caused a lot of unforced errors from the Irish. But those errors usually sailed out of bounds, eliminating any chances of the Orange leaking out on the break as is its wont. Also, the Irish was able to milk the shot clock down on many occasions, including possessing the ball for 96 straight seconds after two offensive rebounds allowed Notre Dame to work the clock even more before getting a bucket.
Could Melo have changed that? Maybe. But he has shown that at times, he can make an offense do things its wouldn’t normally want to do, allowing for Syracuse to get points in transition.
Notre Dame hit four of its first five 3-pointers to start the game and drained 10 of them in the first half. Again, hard to quantify the effect Melo may have had. But the 2-3 zone can extend more on shooters if it knows it has a reliable enforcer in the paint. Are Christmas and Keita those guys? Not at this point.
Now, against Cincinnati, the Orange still scored 18 points below its season average and 20 points below its season average before the Notre Dame game. And the Bearcats, like the Irish, made four of their first five shots from beyond the arc. But, aside from those, look at the improvements Syracuse made from one game to the next:
* The Orange won the rebound battle 36-35, with Christmas tallying nine of those rebounds himself.
* Syracuse blocked six shots, with Christmas tallying three of those himself (in so facto, Rakeem had himself a good game).
* It was Cincinnati that shot 34 percent from the field this time, while Syracuse shot 46 percent.
* Syracuse owned a 36-24 advantage with points in the paint against Cincinnati. It was thought, with the likes of Yancey Gates and Justin Jackson, the Bearcats would further exploit the weakness down low that the Irish revealed Saturday.
* Syracuse managed 14 points off of 11 Cincinnati turnovers (only three more points than Saturday’s game). But, it was able to get out and run a little bit and finish some easy buckets — the staple of this year’s squad.
Those are all modest but notable improvements. But, watch where you’re stepping. I’m about to drop some real knowledge on you:
JARDINE, JOSEPH, AND BRANDON TRICHE COMBINED FOR 41 POINTS MONDAY NIGHT, UP 21 POINTS FROM THE TRIO’S PRODUCTION AGAINST THE IRISH.
The production from those three allowed Syracuse to survive a two-point, 12-minute stat line from Dion Waiters, who drew the ire of Boeheim on several occasions for what looked to be poor shot selection.
So, you mean to tell me that when you get solid efforts from more than a couple of your best scorers, you can be successful? Hmmm….interesting…
Now, don’t get me wrong. Not having Melo at Boeheim’s disposal is not an enjoyable hurdle to leap. I’ll liken it to Arinze Onuaku’s quad problems a couple of years back that sent Syracuse’s hopes at a deep run in March to a screeching halt. Melo, like Onuaku was, is not Syracuse’s best player. But his skill set is one that is unable to be replaced, certainly not by one guy. If Melo is missing for any great length of time Syracuse’s championship aspirations take a significant hit.
But, all season long, everybody has praised the DEPTH of Syracuse’s squad this year, the likes of which have not been seen in Boeheim’s tenure. When Onuaku went down a couple of years ago, the Orange had six guys who would see any significant time on the floor. Without Melo, the Orange still have NINE guys who can produce.
With a 10-man rotation, you don’t lose your depth because your fifth-best player isn’t in the lineup. So the biggest strength of this year’s team was still intact — perhaps with a bit of a flesh wound.
Fab Melo was not the reason the Orange lost to the Irish on Saturday. Selfish offensive play and the inability to put the ball in the hole are to blame for Syracuse’s first loss of the season. Oh yeah, and Notre Dame played a pretty good game, too.
But, if the Orange performs anywhere near its offensive norms from this season, Syracuse is 22-0 right now and Murray State does not get the distinction yet of being the last remaining unbeaten team in D-I hoops.
Scoop was right…the Orange needed to score more points Saturday. After all, scoring more than the other team is the one sure-fire way to make sure you win the game.
Matt Dagostino currently works as an on-air talent and producer for Turner Sports in Atlanta. Among his responsibilities are voicing over highlights for NCAA.com, NBA.com, WNBA.com, and PGA.com. He has also served as an associate producer for TNT’s coverage of the NBA Playoffs and TBS’s coverage of the MLB Postseason. Matt also has experience as a minor league baseball play-by-play announcer and as a PA announcer in D-I college athletics.