published Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Syracuse cruising toward Fab year

Fab.

That's his name. That's his game, especially as it pertains to seven-foot sophomore Fab Melo's mammoth impact on the Syracuse Orange's college basketball season to date.

With Melo on the floor, the 'Cuse is 21-0 with an average victory margin of 19.8 points. With Melo recently sidelined for three games by an academic issue, the Orange went 2-1 with a victory margin of zero.

"I just know it's good to have him back," Syracuse super sub Dion Waiters said Saturday after watching Melo score a career-high 14 points in a 95-70 Orange crushing of host St. John's in his first game back.

"He blocks a lot of shots and takes a lot of charges. We've missed him."

That singular loss at Notre Dame is about all the second-ranked Orange have missed in achieving the nation's top RPI against the country's 11th toughest schedule heading into Wednesday night's Big East showdown against visiting Georgetown.

"I've seen a lot of Syracuse teams, and this may be the best Syracuse zone defense," DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said after coach Jim Boeheim's trademark 2-3 zone took down the Blue Demons on their home court.

"A lot of that has to do with Melo. But their guards also do a good job. It makes you play under duress in a different way."

Here's duress: Thanks in large part to Melo's three blocks a game, the Orange have stuffed more than three times as many shots as their opponents (175-54) and made off with almost twice as many steals (243 to 128).

"They're tough," Villanova coach Jay Wright said after his Wildcats lost by 13 at home to Syracuse. "It is their anticipation. They are always smacking the ball and in the passing lanes. They have great instincts in that zone."

Boeheim has been forced out of his coaching comfort zone this season by child molestation allegations against longtime assistant Bernie Fine, who was forced to resign by the university after more than 35 years on the 'Cuse bench.

The 67-year-old Boeheim initially defended Fine vehemently but later reversed field, expressing regret that his initial comments were "insensitive to victims of abuse."

Yet whatever his private thoughts on that unresolved matter, the 1966 Syracuse grad has arguably never coached better on the court. Saturday's rout of St. John's was his 879th win (all with Syracuse), which ties him with former North Carolina legend Dean Smith for third on the all-time Division I men's victories list, trailing only leader Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight.

"Dean Smith was an unbelievable coach -- one of, I think, the four best ever in college basketball," Boeheim said. "But we've got a long ways to go this season."

The Orange have gone all the way only once in Boeheim's 35 years running the show, winning the national championship in 2003 after reaching the title game in 1987 and 1996.

But never have they had the depth of this team, which has 10 players averaging at least 12.3 minutes a game but no one averaging more than 30, and seven players averaging 7.5 or more points, led by senior forward Kris Joseph's 13.7 a game.

"That is what makes them a good team," said Villanova's Wright. "The fact they have guys like Waiters, [C.J.] Fair, and [James] Southerland. You could argue that they might be starting, but you can't argue their success. Those kids being that unselfish and playing a role like that makes a great team."

Greatness is normally determined in March, and the Orange's most recent NCAA tourney run as a No. 1 seed ended in a Sweet 16 loss to Butler in 2010. But that team had injury issues down the stretch.

This squad not only has two senior starters in point guard Scoop Jardine and Joseph, but also two juniors among the top seven in Brandon Triche (87 percent free-throw shooter) and Southerland. The only freshman of note is post player Rakeem Christmas, who's started all 24 games but averages less than 14 minutes of court time.

If the NCAA tourney selection committee follows the S-curve in seeding that it's supposed to -- pitting the best No. 1 against the worst No. 4, for instance -- ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi believes the Orange currently have the inside track on the overall No. 1 seed over top-ranked Kentucky.

Pointing to Syracuse's 12-1 record against the RPI top 100 as opposed to UK's current 7-1 mark, Lunardi said Sunday, "It's not even close."

If Melo's presence maintains the 19.8-point difference in victory margin that has been shown so far, the Orange's opponents on the road to their second national championship might not stay close, either.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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