Commentary

Syracuse can't ignore this distraction

Originally Published: March 13, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

This should be the best, most enjoyable year of Jim Boeheim's career.

His team has lost but twice since the season tipped off and the Orange, until late Tuesday afternoon, were considered among the favorites to win the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeMelo
Rich Barnes/Icon SMISyracuse sophomore center Fab Melo will sit out the NCAA tournament after the school announced he had an "eligibility issue."

Instead the coach, who on a good day looks like he's eaten a dozen lemons, has stood watch over a season that has been perfect calm on the court and a swirling tempest off it.

On Tuesday, two days before the top-seeded Orange were to debut in the NCAA tournament, the university announced that Fab Melo had again been deemed ineligible and would not be available for Syracuse's NCAA run.

A source told ESPN.com that the big man was being withheld for academic issues related to those that forced him to sit three games earlier in the season.

And so on Wednesday, a little before 2 p.m. ET, Boeheim will take his seat for yet another uncomfortable news conference where the questions will come if not the answers.

That is becoming a near monthly ritual for the coach. In December, he had to address accusations of sexual abuse against his longtime associate head coach, Bernie Fine. And after almost defiantly defending Fine initially, Boeheim struck a more conciliatory tone after he was forced to backtrack once Fine was fired following the emergence of a bizarre taped conversation involving Fine's wife, Laurie.

In January, the university announced Melo's first suspension, which lasted three games and coincided with Syracuse's first loss, and just last week, Yahoo! Sports reported -- and Syracuse confirmed -- that the NCAA was investigating matters related to the school's drug-testing policy.

And now this.

Boeheim, in typical Boeheim fashion, has dealt with all of it with a figurative flick of the wrist. When faced with questions at last week's Big East tournament about whether the Yahoo report and NCAA investigation might be distractions for the Orange, he shrugged his shoulders, insisting it was not a big deal.

"All these guys care about is how they play and where their girlfriends are," he said.

Which is what makes this latest news a little more difficult to brush aside. This is about how these guys will play in the only tournament, as Boeheim said just last week, that matters in college basketball.

Losing Melo changes Syracuse -- and probably a few brackets -- dramatically.

In the three games without him, the Orange's numbers dipped considerably -- from 35.4 points in the paint to 28.7 and from 13.5 second-chance points to 6.3.

Even more important than Melo's offense, where he is still finding his way, is his defense.

"The other guys [Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas], you can get into [them]," said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose team played Syracuse without Melo on Jan. 28. "[They] don't have that physicality. The way they play, they almost kind of leave Melo back there. You almost get one-on-one post-ups because of the way they extend their zone."

Melo, of course, is not the first critical player to miss an NCAA tournament. Just two years ago, the Orange had to make do without Arinze Onuaku after the big man injured his knee in the Big East tournament. In 2000, while at Cincinnati, Huggins went into the Big Dance without Kenyon Martin, who was injured in the first round of the Conference USA tournament.

The No. 1 team in the nation for 12 weeks, the Bearcats lost to Tulsa in the second round.

"It was next to impossible for us because we ran everything through him," Huggins said. "We had to change so many things and we couldn't score the ball. I had freshman point guards who were used to turning everybody loose at the rim and Kenyon would take care of it. I sure hope it works out better for [Boeheim] than it did for us."

Certainly Melo is a critical cog, but he is not the cog for the Orange, not as Martin was for the Bearcats. If there was ever a time for Syracuse's depth to become a huge advantage, this is it.

Neither Christmas nor Keita has logged yeoman's minutes but both have played extensively. Against Cincinnati, when Melo was out, Christmas had arguably his most active game, with nine rebounds and three blocks.

"If there's any team in America that has talented guys that can step in, it's Syracuse," said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, whose team actually beat Cuse in the Big East tournament with Melo. "Kris [Joseph], [C.J.] Fair block shots on the back of that line. It's a blow but they've got some time. They've got one game they should be able to win pretty easily and they can adjust."

Indeed, the Orange are not alone. They are now the second No. 1 seed to be dealt a blow just before the NCAA tournament. Michigan State is without Branden Dawson and making similar adjustments.

But there is no denying that a team that has managed to ignore a season's worth of distractions is facing its toughest test at its most critical time.

And a coach who should be busy making lemonade has been dealing with an awful lot of lemons.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

ALSO SEE