Jim Boeheim can talk all he wants about how UNC-Asheville is a good team. They might just be the best 16th seed ever. But the bottom line is that win was embarrassing. Syracuse played with no energy or sense of urgency on both ends of the court and nearly made the type of history no team wants to be a part of. Perhaps the only consolation is this performance will make the loss in the next round expected rather than disappointing. And make no mistake, if the Orange play anywhere close to how they played on Thursday that will happen.
Clearly the loss of Fab Melo made a huge difference. He allows the guards to more aggressively protect the 3-point line since they don’t need to help when the ball gets in the paint. UNC-Asheville was able to get off good looks with an inside-out game. The Bulldogs made 6 of their 9 open 3-point attempts and just 3-of-14 when defended. Fab also causes opponents to stay perimeter oriented and settle for poor jump shots. There was no intimidation factor for Jeremy Atkinson and Quinard Jackson who both worked their way into the paint for easy shots.
While Melo might not seem to important on the offensive end (7.8 ppg), he creates opportunities for others. His role in the transition game has gone under-appreciated. He often ignites the fast break with quick outlet passes. He also has great hands and is a big target for alley-oops. There were multiple times where Scoop Jardine had the chance to lob it up to Rakeem Christmas but decided against it. There’s no doubt those passes go up with Melo around the rim.
But the biggest difference with Melo out is who is replacing him. Christmas and Baye Keita provide little on the offensive end and can’t come anywhere close to matching Melo’s defensive presence. Here are just a few of the inexplicable things Christmas did on Thursday: Abandoned the center of the zone and lept out to the 3-point line while the offensive player dribbled right past him, appeared to fall down on offense without much contact, mishandled multiple passes, and got stuffed by the rim early in the 2nd half and then proceeded to turn the ball over. Keita was no better. He ran the same screen Melo has all season and then flashed those stone hands as he side shuffled through the lane. Not once did he receive the ball while rolling to the basket and with good reason. He has fumbled too many passes, hasn’t had a reliable shot, and hasn’t proven to be a good decision-maker with the ball. The Bulldogs had no reason to defend Keita on that role and that left the Orange playing 4-on-5.
But Melo aside, Syracuse should have had no problems with this team. UNC-Asheville has no player over 6’5. Everyone knew size was the Orange’s big advantage and they had the opportunity to physically dominate by attacking the lane. Suddenly, Dion Waiters became allergic to the paint and Kris Joseph fell in love with the 3-pointer. Syracuse refused to penetrate and instead relied on 3-pointers to the tune of hitting 1-of-13 in the first half and 5-of-23 for the game. Even when they got good looks they could not knock them down. But that’s not the point. The point is why in the world were they jacking up 3-pointers. Oh that’s right, it was another 2-3 zone that mystified the team that pretty much solely runs a 2-3 zone.
In the 2nd half they snapped out of their funk and began to dictate the tempo. It was clear the guards were playing at another level on defense and the game began to turn. On offense, James Southerland was the lone bright spot with a team-high 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Those are the only positive things I can say about this win.
I’m sick of the seniors, Joseph and Jardine not stepping up. I’m sick of Kris Joseph’s hangdog face. I’m sick of Waiters settling. I’m sick of Brandon Triche disappearing and missing free throws. I’d say I’m sick of CJ Fair but it was almost as if he didn’t even play. He registered 15 minutes but scored just 2 points.
This team has dealt with adversity all season long and reacted with an us-against-the-world mentality. Nothing has seemed to bother them and they’ve gone out and played beyond what anyone expected of this team. But that’s not what happened on Thursday. They came out completely flat. Was it because of a Fab Melo hangover or thinking they’d have a cakewalk over the 16 seed? In the end, the answer doesn’t matter. Maybe they will take this as another learning opportunity and come out passionate and prepared on Saturday. But it’s more likely that Syracuse’s fantastic season will end soon not with a bang but with a whimper.