PITTSBURGH – As is mandatory the day before every NCAA Tournament round, each of the participating teams practices in the arena and meets the media. The interview session on the eve of a team’s debut usually filled with coaches and players talking about how much they appreciate getting a chance to play on the sport’s biggest stage, and praising the opponent they’ll face the next day.
One by one Wednesday inside Consol Energy Center (on what was a glorious late spring-like day in downtown Pittsburgh) this sub-region’s teams came and went with the obligatory respectful quotes.
But when it was time for Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph to mount the stage in advance of Jim Boeheim, a noticeably large swarm of bodies (98 people by our count) suddenly filled up the seats. Everyone was waiting for what everyone knew would be the first question about Fab Melo’s ineligibility to play.
“We found out once we got here pretty much,” Kris Joseph said to the query about when the team was officially informed that the sophomore center was declared ineligible for NCAA play. “It’s not something that hit us all of the sudden, we were informed. We’ve done it before (played without him), so we’ll be ready.”
For Boeheim, who’s had memorable press conferences for all sorts of reasons, good and bad, during a record-breaking 30-win regular season that he labeled Wednesday “the best regular season accomplishment that I’ve ever been part of in 36 years.”
He knew the questions about all that’s gone wrong off the court were coming.
And while first refusing to speak directly about the Melo situation, he finally relented when questioned about the privilege of playing in the NCAA Tournament and a sense of disappointment for not being at full strength.
“I feel bad for him. I feel bad for the rest of the players on the team because you don’t want to lose a teammate in this situation at this time,” Boeheim said in letting down his guard a tad. “For him to not have an opportunity to play is very disappointing for me, for him personally, and for the rest of our players.”
Melo aside, now it’s time for the attention to turn on the court. For the Orange players, it’s simple: Play like the region’s No. 1 seed and advance to the Final Four, even though there are plenty of doubters both in an out of Orange Nation.
“We don’t pay it no mind, it (doesn’t) matter at this point,” Scoop Jardine said in cutting off the negative line of thinking. “We still believe in ourselves. We believe we’re capable of winning the national championship with or without Fab. That’s it. We believe in it.”
It may sound crazy losing such a big cog as Melo. But with all that’s transpired this season, who’s not to say that something else unexpected comes down the NCAA pike, as the ‘Cuse looks to extend the winningest season in school history a couple of more weeks.