The news of Fab Melo’s ineligibility was a massive blow to the Orange’s title aspirations. For a team that already struggles mightily to rebound the ball on defense, Syracuse will surely be forced to make adjustments in his absence.
Luckily for the Orange, the cupboard is not bare. Still, the giant hole in the middle of their defense will not go unnoticed by a number of hungry, talented teams, eager to knock off the region’s number one seed.
Despite what the illustrious statistician Ken Pomeroy suggests, Syracuse should have little trouble dispatching its first-round opponent, UNC-Asheville. That said, there’s plenty of talent in the East region, including a few seven-footers that the Orange may be ill-equipped to handle without Melo. Let’s take a look at the teams that are most likely to end Syracuse’s season earlier than expected.
Kansas State: The Wildcats are the #8 seed in the East and a Round of 32 opponent for the Orange if they can slip past Southern Mississippi. K State’s biggest strength, offensive rebounding (6th best in the country), is Syracuse’s biggest weakness (defensive rebounding is 341st in the country) and will only be exacerbated with the loss of Melo. The hole Melo leaves in the middle will allow the Wildcats to crash the offensive glass time and time again and if they can convert on a high percentage of those second chances, Syracuse will have a hard time making up for it on the other end. Kansas State has shown the ability to hang with the nation’s elite away from the Octagon of Doom this season, sweeping Missouri and knocking off Baylor in Waco, so Syracuse’s length and athleticism will not surprise or intimidate the Wildcats. Freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez continues to mature and if he can limit his turnovers (a tall task against a team that gets in the passing lanes the way Syracuse does), Kansas State will get enough extra possessions thanks to their rebounding edge to make life very difficult on the Orange. Seven-footer Jordan Henriquez has found his groove late in the season and will have a chance to dominate inside.
Vanderbilt: If the ‘Cuse can get to the Sweet 16, they may be rewarded with a meeting with the Vanderbilt Commodores, who just ripped through the SEC Tournament, knocking off Kentucky in the final to claim the crown. Nashville’s finest can simply shoot the lights out. While Jeff Taylor will use his explosive first step to slash in the lane, John Jenkins will set up shop on the perimeter and knock down threes at an alarming rate. He’s shooting 45% from beyond the arc this season and Syracuse’s zone must rotate quickly to avoid giving him open looks. Inside, Festus Ezeli is a lot to handle on the boards and makes his presence known by blocking and altering a high percentage of shots. While the Commodores have struggled with inconsistency all year, dropping games to Indiana State and Arkansas, they seem to be peaking at the right time. Once the ‘Dores get that opening round monkey off their back (Vandy has lost in the first round in their last three NCAA appearances), they should be able to settle in and make a deep tournament run given all the pieces they have in place.
Beyond those squads, Ohio State and Florida State lurk in the bottom half of the East Regional for a potential Elite 8 match-up if the Orange manage to get that far. Of course that means dealing with more of the country’s best big men in the Buckeyes’ Jared Sullinger and the Seminoles’ Bernard James. To advance out of this bracket, Syracuse will have to make cleaning up the defensive glass a priority. There are too many talented bigs in this region to get by on forcing turnovers alone.
Looking outside the East, there are a number of other potential Cinderellas that could make waves in this year’s tourney.
Long Beach State
Long Beach State is a team to look out for. The 49ers have all the makings of a squad capable of rattling off a couple surprise victories. They are a team of experienced seniors, led by 5’10” Casper Ware. Ware is a versatile guard who will score until he’s stopped, at which point, his court vision will take over and he will create opportunities for his teammates. The 49ers also rely on Larry Anderson, a pure scorer and the team’s (and Big West conference’s) best defensive player. Anderson sat out the conference tournament with a sprained knee, but he is expected to play on Thursday. Whether or not he’ll be full strength is another question worth considering before you push the 49ers through in your bracket.
The 14th seeded Atlantic Sun champions are a balanced, dangerous squad that will give Georgetown all it can handle. The Bruins play at a faster pace than the Hoyas will be comfortable with, and shoot the ball better than all but four teams in Division I. Belmont takes care of the basketball and finds many ways to score, an important quality for a team going up against someone who roams the paint with the menace of Henry Sims. Junior guard Kerron Johnson makes this team go. If you look at the advanced metrics, this guy is a star, landing in the Top 100 in the nation in Offensive Rating, True Shooting Percentage, and Assist Rate. The 6’1” leader tends to stay inside the arc and rarely misses when he pulls the trigger around the hoop, shooting 61% on two-point field goals this season. The Bruins can attack from the perimeter as well though with Ian Clark shooting 41% from range and Drew Hanlen knocking down a sizzling 48% of his threes. It doesn’t hurt that Belmont picked up some valuable tournament experience last year in a 14-point loss to Wisconsin. This year, the Bruins won’t be satisfied unless they can bring a victory (or two) back to Nashville.