Posted: Wednesday March 14, 2012 10:41AM ; Updated: Wednesday March 14, 2012 10:41AM
Michael Rosenberg
Michael Rosenberg>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

The road to a national title won't be easy for Syracuse without Fab Melo

Story Highlights

Multiple sources report that Fab Melo's eligibility issues are academically based

While Syracuse drops in quality without Melo, don't rule them out for a title

Why are Syracuse and Michigan State viewed differently? Look at their coaches

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Fab Melo will miss the NCAA tournament because of a broken transcript. Syracuse is calling it an "eligibility issue," but various news outlets (including The New York Times and ESPN.com) say it involves academics. Melo missed three games earlier this year for the same reason. Evidently, Melo's academics are so bad that he isn't allowed to miss three weeks of classes to play in the NCAA tournament.

We have been robbed of one of the great names in the tournament and one of the best players. The question: Have we been robbed of one of the great teams?

Syracuse's season began to take shape when Melo did, last summer in China. Melo played for Brazil in the World University Games, and he lost weight and became a different player. As Scoop Jardine said last month, the difference between Melo last year and Melo this year was: "His body, his mind, his confidence. Everything."

And as coach Jim Boeheim said: "I think Fab is a dominant defensive player. We tend to give credit to offense. If he was doing it on offense, we'd say he was a dominating player. Well, he isn't, but he is doing it on defense."

Keep that in mind when you hear Syracuse players and coaches say they can still win the national championship. But keep this in mind, too: They might do it.

It is tempting to say the Orange can't win this tournament without Melo. Well, Syracuse probably won't win, but to say can't is to ignore the nature of this tournament. Butler made the last two championship games, and I think most of us agree that even without Melo, Syracuse has significantly more talent than Butler.

It's more accurate to say that, without Melo, Syracuse drops in quality from a No. 1 seed to a No. 3 or 4 -- and its chance for a title drops accordingly.

Look at it this way: Melo was Syracuse's best defensive player, but he averaged 25.4 minutes, 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Michigan State just lost Branden Dawson to a knee injury. Dawson was probably the Spartans' best defensive player for the last month, and he averaged 20.6 minutes, 8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

So if you think Michigan State can win the title without Dawson, why can't Syracuse win the title without Melo?

Well, two reasons are Tom Izzo and Jim Boeheim. Izzo has brought the Spartans to six Final Fours since 1999, and we're so accustomed to Michigan State making runs in March -- and never really getting seriously upset in the tournament -- that the players all seem interchangeable.

Meanwhile, Boeheim is one of the most successful coaches ever, but he has only made three Final Fours in his career, and he is known as much for losing early-round games as for winning the 2003 national title. This is not fair, but we're talking about perception. Boeheim got a reputation 20-plus years ago and he hasn't shaken it. Melo's ineligibility will add to the perception that Boeheim steers the loosest ship in major-college basketball.

And a better reason is this: Michigan State seems like it can replace Dawson on the wing (and the Spartans won the Big Ten tournament without him). There is nobody else on Syracuse's roster like Melo. Go ahead, look. If you find a 7-foot-1 shot-blocker with a little offensive game, a big smile and too many failed midterms, let me know.

If you watched Syracuse enough, you could see: that 2-3 zone is not the same without Melo. When he is in the middle, Syracuse's ridiculous group of athletes defends the three-point line better, knowing that he can erase any mistakes in the middle. His blocked shots don't just help the defense -- they send Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph off on fast breaks. And Syracuse is a mediocre rebounding team even with Melo.

Syracuse could start playing more man-to-man defense, but "more" would mean "any". Following Boeheim's usual pattern, this year's team vowed to play some man-to-man, then abandoned it early in the season. This is an all-zone, all-the-time operation.

I still think Syracuse can make a Final Four run. There are precedents. In 1997, Kentucky lost its second-best player, Derek Anderson, and made it all the way to overtime of the national championship game. In 2010, Michigan State lost its best player, point guard Kalin Lucas, to an injury on the first weekend of the tournament. The Spartans made the Final Four anyway.

Waiters and Joseph should both have long NBA careers, and guys like C.J. Fair, Jardine and Brandon Trich give Syracuse arguably the most athletic team in the field. But at some point, Syracuse will wish it had a full team. And Melo will wish he had waited until March to blow off class.

 
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