Syracuse is set to get center Fab Melo back, but coach Jim Boeheim is downplaying his return.
After being reinstated following an academic issue, Melo will return from a three-game absence Saturday afternoon as the second-ranked Orange travel to Madison Square Garden to face St. John's.
Syracuse (22-1, 9-1 Big East) went 2-1 without Melo, suffering its first loss to Notre Dame on Jan. 21 before wins over Cincinnati and West Virginia. The Orange's top rebounder at 5.7 per game, Melo also averages 3.0 blocks and is a major reason why Syracuse is limiting foes to 38.4 percent shooting.
Boeheim, though, is not sure Syracuse is in good shape since it has been edged on the boards by 4.4 per game in conference play. It's also been outrebounded 119-85 in the games Melo's missed.
"We just haven't been doing a good job on the boards, we really haven't all year," Boeheim said. "And it is not the center position. Everyone is going to look at that, but Fab was averaging six rebounds a game."
St. John's (10-12, 4-6) does not have a player over 6-foot-8. The sight of the 7-footer returning is not a welcome one for the Red Storm.
"Fab Melo, he's like the air traffic control director of the back line of Syracuse 2-3 zone," coach Steve Lavin said. "When you have somebody of his size, it obviously changes the game because you have to be mindful and aware that he can come over and block shots."
Lavin remains out while recovering from cancer, with interim coach Mike Dunlap taking his place.
Dunlap's task will be to try to help the Red Storm end a six-game slide against the Orange and deny Boeheim his 879th victory, which would tie him for third place on the all-time list with Dean Smith. St. John's is 0-8 against ranked teams for the worst mark in the country.
Although this is a home game for the Red Storm, a large pro-Syracuse crowd is expected. The Orange launched a campaign this season proclaiming themselves "New York's College Team."
"With all of the social media out there, the players are well aware of Syracuse and the fans and all of that," Dunlap said. "What's going to be great is the Garden's going to be full and the fact that it has a Syracuse flair to it too just adds to the rivalry."
St. John's has won two of three since starting an all-freshmen lineup led by D'Angelo Harrison and Moe Harkless, who have combined to average 43.7 points in that stretch.
"Since we've gone with the five freshmen, the 'Fresh Five' as I call them, we've been more productive in terms of point production and also closed the gap on rebounding against opponents," Lavin said.
Syracuse has not played since last Saturday's 63-61 home win over the Mountaineers. Brandon Triche led the Orange with 17 points.
Triche is one of three Syracuse players averaging in double figures, but may be the one to watch Saturday. He averaged 18.5 points and 4.5 assists in two wins over the Red Storm last season.