Two years ago, an ill-timed injury to Arinze Onuaku helped thwart Syracuse's bid to make the Final Four. Now, another charmed Syracuse season is in jeopardy as a result of the absence of the team's starting center.
The school announced Tuesday afternoon that sophomore Fab Melo will not participate in the NCAA tournament as a result of eligibility issues. Syracuse did not comment further, except to say Melo did not travel with the team to Pittsburgh for its Round of 64 matchup against 16th-seeded UNC-Asheville.
If Syracuse's past performance without Melo is any indication, the Orange (31-2) could be in jeopardy of an earlier NCAA tournament exit than expected.
Syracuse's only loss in regular-season Big East play came against Notre Dame on Jan. 21 in the first of three games Melo missed as a result of an academic issue he needed to clear up. The Orange also struggled at Cincinnati without Melo and escaped a serious scare at home against West Virginia thanks in part to a blown goaltending call in the final seconds.
Melo, a highly touted recruit who played sparingly during a disappointing freshman season, bounced back strong as a sophomore, averaging 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game. He anchors Syracuse's trademark two-three zone defensively, runs the floor well in transition and provides timely low-post scoring.
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The options behind Melo are talented yet unproven. Top recruit Rakeem Christmas and sophomore Baye Moussa Keita have contributed sparingly this season off the bench.
It would be an overreaction to say Syracuse has no shot at a Final Four without Melo, but certainly the lower seeds in the region are looking more enticing. Eighth-seeded Kansas State could pose a challenge in the Round of 32, fifth-seeded Vanderbilt was already a threat in the Sweet 16 and second-seeded Ohio State probably becomes the new favorite to win the East Region.
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