Even before news broke that Fab Melo, Syracuse's star center and Big East Defensive Player of the Year, was ruled ineligible to play in the NCAA tournament, very few national experts were giving the Syracuse Orange any chance to win the national championship or even make it out of their bracket.
How is it that a team that finished the season 31-2, spent six weeks as the No. 1 team in the nation and won the Big East regular season crown is expected by so many to lose in the Sweet Sixteen, if not sooner?
The Orange historically have a reputation for scheduling soft in the non-conference portion of the schedule. This year SU's non-conference opponents don't look terribly impressive though it's through no fault of their own. The Orange played in the NIT Tip-Off where they defeated underachieving Virginia Tech and Stanford squads. Their lone true road game was against North Carolina State and their home tilt against Florida was affected by the Gator's late-season swoon.
So while the Orange got off to a great start, a lot of people looked around and wondered when they were going to play a quality opponent. Unfortunately for them, the Big East was in the midst of it's worst collective season in a long time. Eventually the squad compiled a list of impressive wins over Marquette, Louisville (twice) and UConn (twice). Their lone regular-season loss came on the road to Notre Dame and without the services of center Fab Melo, who was serving an academic suspension at the time.
While the team did well in the only statistical category that truly matters, wins, they didn't "wow the judges" along the way. SU played a lot of close games, allowing lesser opponents to take early leads or make late runs to keep it competitive long after it should have been. By the time they lost to Cincinnati in the Big East Tournament semifinals, it felt like a loss weeks in the making as it was only a matter of time before they ran out of comeback chances in a game.
One of the big knocks all year against SU has been their lack of a specific go-to guy. While it's true that they have no superstar scorer (Kris Joseph leads the team, averaging 13.8 ppg), the Orange make up for their lack of a singular star with a bevy of quality players who can all be a star on any given night. Joseph is the senior leader who often saves his best for late in the game. Senior Scoop Jardine isn't scoring in bunches but he has trimmed his turnovers down and upped his assists ratio. Sixth-man Dion Waiters would be a starter any other year, especially since he's arguably the best player on the court whenever he's actually on the court. Bench players like C.J. Fair and James Southerland have both had impressive moments throughout the season and could be counted on to spark a run.
If there are three big red flags for the Orange headed into the tourney, it's their lack of rebounding, their inability to create offense outside of the transition game and the loss of Fab Melo.
SU was routinely out-rebounded all season long despite having a seven-footer in the middle. The Orange often appear unable to get in position to make rebounds, especially on the offensive glass, and it's been a backbreaker. The offense works best in transition and might be the best in the nation. However, when the game is slowed down and SU is forced to create a set-play, they often struggle.
The loss of Fab Melo is the most crushing news of all for SU. The big Brazilian has grown by leaps and bounds from his freshman to sophomore seasons and has become a true force in the middle of the 2-3 zone. He's often found blocking a shot or taking a charge and even when he's not, he's affecting the play somehow. Without him, the zone loses a lot of power and seems quite less intimidating.
Kansas State creates a serious match up issue in the third round as they're one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation. If both teams win their first round games, we may find out everything we need to know about Syracuse in that one.
That said, what's interesting about this team is that, in spite of their flaws, all they do is win basketball games. You can argue semantics and read statistics off of a piece of paper all day, but there's a reason this team won 31 games before the NCAA tournament even started.
Obviously, best case scenario for this team is that they march to the National Championship and do so by beating some of the teams many pundits have claimed are better, such as Ohio State, North Carolina and Kentucky. Realistically, this team has enough talent, senior leadership and experience dealing with perseverance to make it to the Final Four. They might get cut down before then by Vanderbilt or Ohio State, especially now that Melo isn't there, but even without their star center, this team has it within themselves to make a surprising run. It has been a crazy season for the Orange and a run to the Final Four in the midst of all this madness almost makes sense at this point. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking.
Sean Keeley is the creator of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, the biggest Syracuse blog out there. A '00 graduate of Syracuse University, Sean is now an Adjunct Professor at SU's iSchool on the topic of blogging. His work has appeared on sites such as ESPN.com, Deadspin.com, SBNation.com and Syracuse.com. In 2010, Sean wrote "How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way To Brainwash Your Child Into Becoming A Syracuse Fan," which is available in paperback and e-book. He lives in Seattle with his wife Lucy, who does not care about Syracuse sports at all. For more, visit SeanKeeley.com.
Follow Sean Keeley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NunesMagician