Fab Melo is ineligible for the NCAA tournament, but Syracuse is used to brushing off adversity
All season nothing mattered. There wasn’t a story or a scandal that could derail the Syracuse Orangemen.
Not longtime assistant Bernie Fine dealing with molestation accusations. Not coach Jim Boeheim being sued for defamation by two of Fine’s accusers. Not the revelation that the program is under NCAA investigation for not following its own drug-testing standards.
“News doesn’t matter,” Boeheim said last week at the Big East tournament, where his Orange would finish the season 31-2. In terms of pure coaching, this has been one of Boeheim’s greatest efforts.
On Tuesday, though, news broke that did matter – starting center Fab Melo is out of the NCAA tournament because of what the school termed an “eligibility issue.” A number of media outlets have reported that it’s academically related. CBSSports.com reported that the NCAA looked into his schoolwork and may have found a bigger issue.
“The NCAA went back and looked at his schoolwork,” a source told CBSSports.com. “They are looking into the fact that he didn’t do some of the work.”
No matter the reason, the ‘Cuse’s chaotic roller-coaster season finally may come off the rails. A team with a legitimate eye on a national title will have to readjust its lineup on the fly, at nearly the worst possible time. The Orange play 16th-seeded UNC Asheville on Thursday in Pittsburgh.
“Syracuse University sophomore men’s basketball center Fab Melo did not travel with the team to Pittsburgh, and will not take part in the NCAA Tournament due to an eligibility issue,” Syracuse said in a statement. “Given University policy and federal student privacy laws, no further details can be provided at this time.”
Melo is a sophomore who averaged 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks this season. His 7-foot frame is the anchor to the team’s patented zone defense.
A team outrebounded on the season doesn’t want to lose its biggest man. In Big East regular-season play, opponents averaged 3.4 more offensive rebounds a game than Syracuse. Melo missed the Orange’s lone regular-season loss, to Notre Dame, and the Irish won the battle of the boards 38-25.
No, Syracuse isn’t done. Not by any means. If this was going to happen to one of Boeheim’s teams, it might as well be this one – perhaps his deepest ever. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita are the likely fill-ins and both are capable, if lightly experienced.
There is no denying this will sting. The Orange aren’t just in this tournament, they are in it to win it. Boeheim is seeking his second national title in what may be his last strong run at the Final Four in his Hall of Fame career.
And then there is the state of mind of a team that has exhibited tunnel vision all season even as the circus spun around it. Until now, all the angst has been about someone else. Yes, Fine was first put on leave and then fired, but that’s an assistant coach.
Boeheim has been brilliant at pushing the issues to the side and concentrating on getting his team better. He always has been focused on basketball only, but this has set the standard for a coach dealing with a challenging season.
“This doesn’t bother our players or our team or me,” he said last week at the Big East tournament. “None of this. This is a media thing, period. If things were bothering us, we wouldn’t be 31 and 1 [now 2]. Nothing bothers us. We come ready to play.
“That’s what you should do in life. Everybody gets bothered. Everybody has problems. I’m much more concerned about my wife being mad at me than I am anything else, to tell you the truth.”
Expect the same public, and perhaps private, reaction going forward. Boeheim’s historic lack of panic and his faith in the team will be a positive. Getting a 1-16 tune-up will help.
That alone will cause conspiracy theories about when Syracuse discovered Melo’s eligibility issue. Had it been disclosed before Sunday’s setting of the brackets, the Orange might have been pushed down to a No. 2 or even 3 seed and not given as favorable a geographic draw – relatively nearby Pittsburgh and Boston.
At this point, there will only be questions and suspicions, and neither will affect the team’s chances. If anything, the players have taken all the headlines this season and tried to spin them into a positive.
“It brings us closer together so we can prove them wrong,” senior Scoop Jardine said. “We use a motto: ‘We all we got.’ We stick together. We make plays. The season we’ve had shows a lot of guys who love each other.”
It’s worked throughout this wild, and at times ugly, few months that have brought unthinkable stories and accusations and uncertainty to the program.
There is no positive to losing Feb Melo, though, only an opportunity for the ‘Cuse to prove even more resilient than it already has.
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