PITTSBURGH — There will be a different look to Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone when the Orange take the court Thursday against North Carolina-Asheville in the second round of the East Regional of the NCAA tournament.
Fab Melo, the 7-foot sophomore who was selected Big East Defensive Player of the Year, won’t be in the middle of the back line. He isn’t with the team, having been declared ineligible by the school for academic reasons.
“I think this is not going to stop our train from moving,” sophomore forward C.J. Fair said Wednesday. “Of course Fab is a beast, but we’ve got guys that can go out there and play and keep winning.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim repeated over and over Wednesday that he can’t talk about why Melo was declared ineligible, citing privacy issues.
Earlier this season Melo missed three games in January for the same reason. The Orange (31-2) had their season-opening 20-game winning streak snapped by a loss in the middle of those games at Notre Dame.
Boeheim said he felt bad for Melo, who averaged 7.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and blocked 88 shots, the same number North Carolina-Asheville’s whole team did this season.
“I feel bad for the rest of the players on the team, because you don’t want to lose a teammate in this situation at this time,” said Boeheim, a member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and third-winningest Division I coach ever with 887 victories. “Yeah, it’s a very difficult thing to go through. He’s a kid that’s come, in my opinion, just an unbelievable way in a relatively short period of time.”
Now the Orange, who were ranked No. 1 for six weeks this season and who enter the tournament behind only Kentucky in the Top 25, must find a way to win six games without him if they are win the school’s second national championship.
“We lost one without him; we lost one with him,” Dion Waiters, the Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year said of Melo. “He’ll be truly missed, but we’ve just got to be ready to go when the ball gets tipped in the air.”
North Carolina-Asheville suddenly becomes a 16th seed with a better chance than it had two days ago of becoming the first to beat a No. 1 seed.
The Bulldogs became one of the 16s that lost to a No. 1 last year when they lost 71-47 to Pittsburgh, another Big East school, in the second round.
“This year we’re not just satisfied getting here. We want to win a game, win two games,” said Matt Dickey, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer at 16.5 per game and the Big South Player of the Year. “We want to make a name for UNC-Asheville. This is the opportunity to do it.'”
Not having to face Melo in the middle makes things a lot different for the Bulldogs, who don’t have a starter taller than 6-5.
But the players who should split Melo’s 25 minutes per game are 6-9 freshman Rakeem Christmas and 6-10 sophomore Baye Keita. Boeheim has played a 10-man rotation for most of the season.
“When they’re nine deep and as great as players as they are, against UNC-Asheville it might not be much of a factor in the game,” Bulldogs coach Eddie Biedenbach said. “The other guys are very mobile. They run the floor better. … We have to be concerned with what we do well, not the problems that Syracuse might have. They’re still a great team and the No.1 seed, so we have our work cut out for us.”
The Orange have struggled offensively down the stretch, failing to score 70 points in four of their last five games, including the 71-68 loss to Cincinnati in the Big East tournament semifinals.
This is the second time in three years the Orange have entered the NCAA tournament without their starting center. In 2010, Arinze Onuaku injured his right quadriceps in the Big East tournament and didn’t play for top-seeded Syracuse, which lost to Butler in the West Regional semifinals.
“The difference then was we didn’t have as much depth,” Boeheim said. “We really were playing seven players that year, and I think it was fine because they had multiple positions. Arinze was a big part of our team. He averaged 10 (points) and eight (rebounds), blocked shots. It’s very similar. I think the one difference is we do have a little bit more depth this year.'”
And the Bulldogs will go into the game concerned with themselves, not Melo.
“We’ll just play hard. We’ve played teams that are a lot bigger than us — North Carolina, Tennessee, UConn. We lost to those teams, but we got a great experience in playing the bigger teams,” Dickey said. “We played better as the season went on against those teams.
We have to box out, play smart. Like I said, any loose ball we have to get. We got to get all the loose balls and make all the right decisions on offense and defense.”