Two years ago, it was an ill-timed injury to Arinze Onuaku that helped thwart Syracuse's bid to make the Final Four. Now, another charmed Syracuse season may be disrupted by the absence of the team's starting center.
The school announced Saturday afternoon that sophomore Fab Melo did not make the trip with his teammates for Saturday's game at Notre Dame or Monday's game at Cincinnati. In unrelated news, seldom-used reserve Mookie Jones has left school for "personal reasons" and is no longer a member of the basketball program.
Although Syracuse cited privacy issues for why it wouldn't reveal the reasons for Melo's absence, ESPN.com's Andy Katz reported Saturday that the 7-foot center did not travel with the team due to an unresolved academic issue from the fall semester.
A source told Katz that Syracuse is hopeful the matter will be resolved in time for Melo to return to the team for next Saturday's matchup with West Virginia. That makes it seem as though Melo is being given an opportunity to do extra work this week to raise a grade that would jeopardize his eligibility for the remainder of the season.
Not having Melo for two road games could threaten Syracuse's unbeaten season, but that's far from the worst-case scenario. As long as the Orange don't lose their starting center and top big man for the remainder of the season, they should be able to survive this.
Melo, a highly touted recruit who played sparingly during a disappointing freshman season, has bounced back strong as a sophomore, averaging 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in 22.7 minutes per game. He tallied a double-double in Syracuse's victory over Pittsburgh last week, scoring 10 points and grabbing 10 boards.
The options behind Melo are talented yet unproven. Top recruit Rakeem Christmas, a 6-foot-9 Pennsylvania native, has contributed 3.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per game, while sophomore Baye Moussa Keita has chipped in 2.9 points and 2.1 rebounds in 12.3 minutes per game.
Perhaps one of those two can thrive with an expanded role. Nonetheless, Syracuse has to hope Melo's absence is a brief one.