The Syracuse Orange entered the NCAA Tournament full of uncertainty with the loss of starting center Fab Melo to eligibility issues. After barely grazing past 16 seeded UNC Asheville in a shockingly close 72-65 win, such doubt has been fully validated. Once thought a legitimate national title contender, thanks in large part to its normally suffocating 2-3 matchup zone, Syracuse looked rather ordinary defensively without the seven-foot Melo in the middle.
Melo isn't the most fluid of athletes, but his sheer size and length clogs driving lanes and either alters or blocks shots. Forced to go to his bench, head coach Jim Boeheim relied heavily on C.J. Fair and freshman Rakeem Christmas, both excellent athletes, but neither have the same defensive effect. The lack of weak side help on Asheville drives was apparent early and often. Late in the first half, Bruce Hornsby drove literally uncontested from the baseline to the middle. Not only was there not a shot-blocking threat, but Christmas was appallingly slow on his rotation to help.
This becomes extremely dangerous for Syracuse, because it allows for drive-and-kick opportunities against the zone. The very next Asheville possession resulted in kick-out triple and, for just the seventh time in NCAA Tournament history, a 16 seed led a 1 seed at halftime.
On the game, 'Cuse allowed an unacceptable 39 percent shooting from three and out-rebounded a much smaller Bulldog team by just two.
In terms of talent and depth, this remains a Syracuse team loaded at guard with a future lottery pick in Dion Waiters, who is capable of taking over any game at any time. Even so, Syracuse's hope that the absence of Melo would result in a more free-flowing, fast-paced game didn't come into fruition. If anything, not having the behemoth in the middle hampered the dynamic transition game of the Orange because it failed to produce enough blocks and poor shots at the rim that triggers up-tempo attacks.
Such a culmination presents a very intriguing game against 22-10 Kansas State come Saturday in the round of 32. With Jamar Samuels and Jordan Henriguez in the paint along with defensive ace Rodney McGruder on the perimeter, Frank Martin's club is an extremely physical and nasty opponent that has already beaten both Baylor and Missouri this season. The Wildcats prefer to grind possessions out and won't fall victim to turnovers against the 2-3 zone. With its combination of girth, athletes and speed, K-State will instantly take advantage of Melo's vacancy and dramatically push the 'Cuse.
If the Orange are to move on as expected, it will need a vastly improved effort from seniors Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph, who combined for a putrid 6-18 shooting on Thursday along with five turnovers.
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