SU Struggles Without Melo
Add that to the list of truisms regarding the Orange’s sophomore center that sounded completely ludicrous as recently as three months ago.
While losing the starting center would be a body blow, Notre Dame remained a very beatable opponent. Syracuse was put in a tough but navigable spot Saturday afternoon when it was announced that Melo would miss two games (and potentially more) due reportedly to academic reasons. My impression is that the number of games wasn’t a punishment itself as much as it was a product of unfortunate timing with the Orange playing two games on the road in three days without returning to campus in between. If tonight’s game against Cincinnati was scheduled for later in the week, rather than Monday, my guess is there would be a greater chance of Melo returning, only having missed one game. But that’s neither here nor there; What matters is that the Orange struggled mightily and we learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that Melo is the team’s most important player, even if Dion Waiters is the best.
With Melo out of the equation, the rest of the team felt a bit more pressure, compounded by a rowdy crowd in South Bend. Though simply not having him available was a factor on its own in Saturday night’s loss, it was easy to see the rest of the team feel the stress as the Irish lead swelled and the Orange ran disjointed sets on offense. When SU got some open looks, they didn’t hit, and as the Irish gained separation, a rash of ill-advised shots and an uncharacteristically poor stretch of play from Kris Joseph followed. The only thing the Orange did well was hold onto the ball, with a turnover rate under 15% for the game, but they didn’t hit enough shots for it to matter.
On the other end, even though Notre Dame’s perimeter game appeared to do the most damage, the depleted back line was way too noticeable. Baye Moussa Keita was terrible defensively as the Irish played him like a lean 6’10” fiddle. Keita often left his man to double or rotate for help defense, and was caught cheating time and time again. I haven’t been very critical of Rakeem Christmas this season, even though he’s been far from impressive as well, but that’s because he’s still young and raw, whereas Keita now has over a season and a half of experience and should be able to manage against the likes of Jack Cooley and Pat Connaughton. It used to be that Keita’s softness was only reflected in his declining rebounding totals, but he’s now having trouble defending before a shot even goes up, which is very concerning to me. Cooley is a very nice player, but I came away convinced that a panicked Syracuse back line made him look much more imposing than he really is, and that’s on Christmas as well as Keita.
There’s no question that being without Melo impacted the team, but the Orange didn’t do enough things right in his absence to convince me that the outcome would be different had he been able to play. I have to tip my hat to Mike Brey. He’s had a crummy few months marked by inconsistency and his team struggling to find an identity with Tim Abromaitis sitting out with an ACL tear. The Irish haven’t strung more than two consecutive wins together since before Thanksgiving, and that’s made it easy to forget that Brey took home National Coach Of The Year honors for leading his team to a second-place finish last season. Saturday night, he had the perfect game plan for his personnel – burn time, keep the Orange off the glass, make them run half-court sets and get a good shot every time down the floor – and his players executed it almost flawlessly.
While the Orange didn’t do themselves many favors, the officiating crew led by Tim Higgins was woeful. Coming into the season, I had a good feeling that the charge circle, while good for the game, would take some getting used to by referees across the country. Its implementation is a step up, but it’s still just that – a step. Charges are being called way too often. Defenses are being rewarded for getting caught out of position and camping out just outside of the arc down low, ready to take contact rather than make a play on the ball or try to otherwise alter the path without fouling, and I just don’t see how it benefits the game. I was listening to an interview with Jay Bilas over the weekend, and he seemed to echo this sentiment. Coaches and players are right to use the rule (or more pointedly, how the rule is being defined by referees) to the greatest advantage, but that doesn’t make it beneficial to the game. Perhaps moving the charge circle back another foot or two would convince teams to play actual defense, but the lack of uniformity is a major problem in officiating, and one that I hope can be rectified soon.
Moving onto tonight’s game, Yancy Gates has a chance to make Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas look even worse than they did in battling Cooley and Scott Martin, but with the advanced knowledge that Fab Melo won’t be around, there’s still a chance the inside core does a decent job. Even before Saturday’s news came along, my thought was that the Cincinnati game could go in any of several directions. The Bearcats have lost some highly surprising home games this season, but sit near the top of the conference standings with just two conference losses and wins over Georgetown and Connecticut already in the bank.
If the worst is to come and Melo has to stay out of action for an extended period of time, it could be the biggest personnel hit since Arinze Onuaku missed the 2010 NCAA Tournament with a quad injury, the main difference being that this team would have more time to adapt. Let’s hope that he gets his issues ironed out and returns to action sooner rather than later, though.