Through three games of the NCAA tournament, Syracuse didn't feel the loss of center Fab Melo.
But in that fourth game — the Elite Eight matchup against Ohio State — Fab Melo's absence could not have been more significant. Ohio State outrebounded Syracuse 37-22, the largest discrepancy in the tournament for the Orange. Syracuse managed to outscore Ohio State in the paint, but weren't able to contain Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, who had a strong second half and led the Buckeyes to a 77-70 victory and a trip to the Final Four.
"He played hard," Syracuse forward Kris Joseph said of Sullinger, who finished with 19 points and seven rebounds. "He was attacking the basket. He was getting positioned down low, and when you were guarding a big body like Sullinger's it was tough for anyone to do something. Either he's going to get fouled or he'll have a chance to score two points. Our bigs did as good a job as they could have against him. He made some tough shots, and he's a great player."
Sullinger only played six minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, but Syracuse was unable to capitalize on his absence. Syracuse's best offensive threat was freshman Rakeem Christmas, who was 3 for 3, but played just 16 minutes because of foul issues, and the Orange shot just 35.7 percent in the first half.
While Sullinger was on the bench, Deshaun Thomas became a key factor as did center Amir Williams, and forwards Sam Thompson and Evan Ravenel in spot time. And when Sullinger came back, Syracuse had no answer.
In games against UNC Asheville, Kansas State and Wisconsin, Syracuse was able to make up for the loss of Melo with a group effort down low and strong shooting outside, but Sullinger was the toughest interior presence the Orange had seen. He even hit 9 of 12 free throws to make fouling him just as big of a mistake as letting him set up inside.
"Sullinger is just too difficult down low," coach Jim Boeheim said. "We've got two freshmen and a sophomore that weighs 200 pounds, and they're at a big disadvantage. I thought they did all right. They hung in there against him. He's going to score. We know he's going to score some points. I thought they really battled him pretty good."
The loss ended a stellar on-court and a tumultuous off-court season for the Orange. Syracuse finished with a stunning 34-3 record, but it was overshadowed by off-court issues, including two former ball boys accusing longtime 'Cuse assistant Bernie Fine of sexually abusing them in the 1980s (and Boeheim's subsequent public defense of his friend), and self-reported violations about failed drug tests by previous members of the team.
But on Saturday, it was Melo's suspension for academic issues that proved to be the Orange's undoing in their bid for the Final Four.
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