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Moving On Without Melo

Just when this season couldn’t get any wilder.

With memories of Arinze Onuaku still fresh in everyone’s minds, yesterday’s news of Fab Melo’s ineligibility delivered a major blow to Syracuse’s title chances. In the span of a few minutes, the Orange went from having an excellent shot at the Final Four and beyond to a team that some experts predict to get bounced before it gets to Boston. The margin for error, already razor-thin in a tournament setting, just became thinner.

Reports on the specific reasons behind SU’s decision to keep Melo in Syracuse are conflicting, and because this is an academic issue, privacy laws prohibit the school from speaking publicly on the matter. It’s not likely that we’ll learn the details anytime soon, so all we can do as fans is keep the hope alive and exchange ideas on how the team can withstand its latest challenge entering the most important part of the season.

While I’m all for optimism, I’m not here to tell you that Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita will fill in without missing a beat. Despite Melo’s production of 7.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, it’s not very realistic to plug in a pair of role players for the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and expect a seemless transition. Melo’s defensive prowess extended beyond taking charges and blocking shots. Opposing players who try to shoot over or around him did so with very little success, hitting on just 29.1% of attempts from the field, and he had a knack for playing excellent defense without fouling.

The Orange are still plenty deep, but consistency becomes more important than it was before yesterday’s new came down the pipe. With the exception of tomorrow’s opener against UNC Asheville, the days of Syracuse winning despite two or three regulars laying eggs are numbered. So how can the Orange adjust to keep their chances at their best while limiting the damage? I’m glad you asked. The answer may surprise you, but with the construction of SU’s DNA altered, its style may have to undergo some fairly significant changes.

The 2-3 zone isn’t going anywhere, but I see a more uptempo style potentially suiting the available personnel very well. Fab Melo did many things well on defense. The one thing he didn’t do as well was run the floor. This team still boasts top-notch athleticism and a deep rotation at every other spot on the floor. Some 3/4-court press could generate enough turnovers to make up for the possessions lost in the disappearance of Melo’s blocks and charges taken. While I may be down on Baye Keita more than any SU blogger (do I get a trophy for that, by the way?), he can recover when the press is broken by running like a gazelle back to his spot, something Melo could never dream of doing even after dropping 30 pounds. The starting center may be gone, but this isn’t 2010. Rakeem Christmas and Keita have the experience that DaShonte Riley painfully lacked, even if Keita has regressed. This intensity of this system may also require a more liberal substitution pattern for the backcourt, and this is an area where the Orange could maximize its strengths, as Michael Carter-Williams can excel alongside Dion Waiters, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, all very good defenders in their own rights.

An even friskier option may be to scrap the idea of having two big men on the court on the same time altogether. This isn’t as exotic as one might think, after seeing C.J. Fair, generously listed at 6’8″, man one of the wings all season. However, given the probable matchups against Kansas State and Vanderbilt in the later rounds, these slower teams could be overwhelmed by Syracuse’s athleticism with a few tweaks to the rotation. There is a downside that I’d be remiss not to note, and that is the risk of foul trouble putting the Orange in deeper trouble than they already are with such a tight style. Pressing inherently involves closer positioning, and it also increases the number of possessions, which means fouls can be accumulated in just a few possessions. Keita is especially foul-prone; in a larger role, he’d have to be careful, and depending on the officiating, things can get dicey pretty quickly, but it may be worth the risk.

Priority number one remains getting past 16-seed UNC Asheville and avoiding the legacy as the answer to a trivia question for years to come. I think it’s important to get out to a comfortable lead early Thursday so the team can mix and match strategies in an effort to find one that works going into the next round. Unlike Kansas State and Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs play a small lineup, so there’s no guarantee that any strategy that does the job against Asheville would hold serve in the later rounds. Expectations will have to be tempered, which is a realization that’s tough to come to grips with, but if Keita and Christmas can have some success early and build confidence, we may see a revitalization as the Orange march on.

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