No Expectations for the Fab-less Five
- Updated: March 14, 2012
News broke this afternoon that Syracuse starting center Fab Melo is not eligible for the tournament in what is perhaps the first time that NCAA tournament brackets blew up before the NCAA tournament even started. Cuse fans are coming to grips in the Fab Melo version of the five stages of grieving (hyperlink to http://cusepulp.blogspot.com/2012/03/five-stages-of-fab-grief.html). Those who bought tickets for New Orleans are likely already considering selling them. My brother and his friends who have had tickets to the Boston regional for months now are probably a little nervous about Kansas State in the second round (I will not accept that this is now referred to as the “third round” since I still do not acknowledge that the “First Four” even happens, which is why I am writing this in my kitchen even though I could watch them on TV in the other room if I really cared). Cuse fans are clearly, and justifiably, disappointed at the news and skeptical about the team’s chances in the NCAA tournament.
However, after reading many of the very negative posts and other comments attacking Fab on various websites, my first reaction is, “Give the kid a break.” I’m not typically the most sympathetic person, but without knowing the details of what happened, how can you jump all over him? This isn’t the first time that a star athlete has had trouble balancing athletics and academics, although it is particularly poor timing. What if Fab had been suspended for the season back in January—would there have been this much backlash? I assume probably not. Add to this the fact that English is not Fab’s first language and it’s not as crazy to think that maybe there were some reasons for his academic difficulties. There was even a rumor that the academic issue is relating to a first semester class where the final exam was compromised for the entire class. I have no idea if that rumor is indeed true or not, but the point is, neither do most of the people jumping to the conclusion that Fab simply ignored his classes and academics. The guy may feel terrible about this and it may not be his fault, so let’s just accept that he’s out and move on.
As for the effects on the team, they’re obviously not good. Cuse looked terrible on offense and defense while Fab was out earlier this year. While Fab is not a consistently good rebounder, he’s a big body who can at least make other teams work to kill us on the boards as opposed to doing it with ease like WVU did. I will also personally miss his goofy power dunks five seconds after a blown whistle and smack talk with opponents after he blatantly goal tends a layup into the stands.
However, on the bright side, the team has some experience at playing without Fab due to his prior suspension, so this isn’t catching them totally off-guard. Rakeem Christmas will get his minutes at the 5, where he’s been much more comfortable so far this season, including his two of his best games of the season: the first against Cincinnati’s Yancey Gates in the regular season; the second in Syracuse’s first game of the Big East tournament against UConn’s big front line.
Also, while the team’s offense was noticeably worse without Fab in the lineup, it didn’t improve as much as many hoped even after he got back. It was almost as if the team changed its offensive game a bit to be even more perimeter focused, with its guards and forwards initiating the offense with penetration into the lane for a shot, to draw a foul or to kick the ball out the perimeter for a jump shot. Did Boeheim tinker with his offense a bit, knowing that this follow-up suspension was a possibility ever since the first one? Hard to say, but I wouldn’t consider it totally improbable either. This could even help explain Fab’s inexplicable tendency to shoot 18 foot jump shots, and typically miss them badly, as a way to try to get his points.
Unfortunately, the last “bright spot” is that the team played terribly enough in the three games without Fab for Cuse fans to be all but positive that SU is just not going to win the national championship this year. After an entire season of trying to not get too excited about Syracuse’s chances of winning it all, but at times not being able to help it, the possibility now seems fairly remote.
The inherent dread within Syracuse fans of the team choking in the tournament was always there because things like this seem to happen more often to Syracuse than to other teams, or at least that’s how we perceive it in our small, Teflon covered world. While failing to get to the Final Four now won’t be considered a “choke,” it’s too bad that we’ll never know where this team could have gone with its full team. It’s also unfortunate that in a few years, college basketball “experts” who don’t do their homework may still unfairly accuse this Cuse team of choking, much like Dan Wolken of Fox Sports did this week when he accused the 2006 and 2010 teams of doing just that, without recognizing that GMac and Arinze Onuaku, respectively, were limited or out altogether with injuries.
What’s more interesting than Wolken’s uninformed commentary is that he accused Cuse of choking against Butler of all teams. Since when it is choking against the team that eventually ends up as the national runner-up (I still think that would have been best sporting event ending EVER had Gordon Heyward’s last second shot had gone in rather than caroming off the rim—underdog team from Indiana against an evil empire of minor league pros masquerading as college students; it would have been incredible…)? Especially when essentially the same Butler team lost in the national championship game again the following year without its one true star player from the previous season?
While I question Wolken’s opinion and credibility, his comments show that despite the yearly evidence to the contrary, many in the sports media still think of the power conference teams as superior to the mid-majors, capable of beating any non-power conference opponents in their paths. This bias likely comes from the old, and now outdated, rule of thumb that the teams with the best players, and by that I generally mean the most potential NBA prospects, would have the best odds to win any individual game as well as the national championship. However, as high school and young college players have become more advanced and NBA scouts weigh future potential higher than actual skill set when evaluating players, the NBA continues to pluck the best players from college after their freshman or sophomore years in college.
What’s left in college basketball, then, is increased parity. Young, talented future NBA stars with little experience collect at the top programs in the county in hopes of significant exposure and a quick national championship before heading off to the pros. What’s left are “star” college players who are missing a certain “something,” be it height, athleticism or an “NBA game,” that more than likely will prevent them from becoming NBA stars. At least the NBA sees them that way, leaving these players to stay in college through their junior or senior years before inevitably being drafted in the late first round of the NBA draft, at best. These more experienced players are often more developed physically than many of the underclassman future NBA lottery picks, and they typically have been through the rigors of several seasons of college basketball. Teams with a few of these players typically have good chemistry from playing and practicing together for years. It is these kinds of teams that can do significant damage in the NCAA tournament, as George Mason, Butler and VCU have proven in recent years. Combine that kind of chemistry from seasoned veterans like Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche, along with young talent destined for the NBA, like Dion Waiters and Fab Melo, and it’s easy to see why Cuse fans had their hopes for Cuse to make the Final Four this season.
The media has not yet come to grips with the current parity in college basketball, maybe due to their more extensive coverage of the recognizable power teams or because they don’t want Cinderella teams to lose the illusion of inferiority, which always makes for good press. At least the NCAA hoops committee is recognizing it in recent years with noticeably more respect for the mid-majors versus so-so teams from the power conferences, much to the dismay of former CBS color commentator Billy Packer (how’s the golf game, Billy?). As Boeheim said this week, there are, “no easy games anymore,” in the NCAA tournament.
And with that, back to Cuse. To summarize my thoughts after the not so fabulous news from today (pun totally intended), I’ve really enjoyed watching this team play all season, with or without Fab, so I am going to support them all the way. If they don’t go as far as they likely could have with Fab, that’s fine, and at the very least it’s not unexpected. However, if Cuse can get past Kansas State, who I think is a very good team, then I don’t see why Cuse, even without Fab, couldn’t get past Vanderbilt or Wisconsin. Ohio State, however, is a different story. I can only hope that OSU is upset along the way because I can picture Jared Sullinger just dominating inside against either Rakeem or Baye. In fact, I think Sullinger could dominate inside against both Rakeem and Baye together, which does not say much for Cuse’s chances with only one or the other. Until that potential matchup, I am going to sit back and enjoy the ride, hoping that this team rallies around each other, buckles down and advances farther in the tournament than many thought they could without Fab