The goal doesn’t change for Syracuse now that Fab Melo is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. The Orange is still searching for a storybook ending to its season. But the narrative has taken a dramatic twist in recent days, and SU must veer from the script in order to reach its ultimate goal.
Syracuse has to find the formula that allows for a Final Four run, despite the subtraction of arguably its most valuable player. What can Jim Boeheim do to adequately replace Fab?
Option One: Baye Moussa Keita
Probability of Success: 10%
Prior to the start of the season, Orange Nation thought Baye was more valuable player than Fab. That couldn’t be further from where things stand now. All of the goodwill Keita garnered during the ’10-’11 season with his hustle and scrappy play has long since evaporated. He has seemingly regressed from last season, or at the very least plateaued.
The numbers say as much. Keita averages more than a rebound less per game compared to last year, he blocks fewer shots, and his 2.2 points per game matches his freshman average.
Some players do pass the eye test despite poor numbers. Perhaps the Senegalese sophomore did last season, but there’s no denying he just plain looks bad this year. Out of place and uncomfortable on offense, Keita hasn’t even provided the bursts of energy he did as a freshman. His lack of strength has caught up with him defensively and as a rebounder.
College basketball is a “what have you done for me lately?” sport in March. And lately Keita has barely managed to even stay in Boeheim’s rotation. He hasn’t scored a single point, or grabbed more than one rebound in a game since over a month ago. He logged one minute of total playing time in the Big East Tourney, and did not get on the floor against UConn. That marked his first non-injury-related DNP of the season.
Baye’s absence in MSG shows that Boeheim had no idea more Melo-drama was on the way, and that The Per’fesser expected Baye on the bench for most of the NCAA Tourney.
Option Two: Rakeem Christmas
Probability of Success: 40%
Or, Boeheim could dole out the majority of center minutes to a freshman who arrived at school with virtually zero experience playing center. He played on the wing of his high school team’s 2-3 zone so that he could prepare to do the same for SU. Now, as crazy as it sounds, he’s the best center the Orange has left.
Granted, Rak’s recent numbers look a lot like Baye’s, but Christmas at least broke through for five rebounds and two blocks against St. John’s. Something may have clicked for him once he was moved to the bench.
He has exhibited a pulse at various points this season, more than you can say about Keita. Christmas also had his moments the last time Melo went out of the lineup, grabbing 14 boards and blocking 5 shots over the three-game span.
Syracuse isn’t about to enter the DaShonte Riley Doldrums 2.0. Christmas is a McDonald’s All-American. He can’t be depended on quite yet, but Rak may have enough raw athleticism and talent to fake it.
There is a decent chance – better than most anticipate – that Christmas can provide some legitimate tourney contributions.
Option Three: No Center-Lineup
Probability of Success: Unknown
We may never get to see if this solution would work. Boeheim isn’t the architect of very many large scale in-season adjustments. In fact, it was surprising he finally moved Fair into the starting lineup for Christmas in NYC last week.
But hey, if it turns out neither Keita nor Christmas can do the job, why not play without a center and press opponents’ brains out?
Syracuse’s incredible depth has been well-chronicled. But it has always seemed like that depth was more concentrated at the guard and wing positions anyway. It could be time to acknowledge that fact, and simply abandon the center position altogether.
When the Orange was blowing everyone out to start the season, it had a lot to do with inferior opponents, but it also spoke to SU’s depth. Boeheim spread out his players’ minutes more evenly, pressed frequently, and his team showed tremendous energy.
With Melo gone for good, it’s time for the Orange to return to its run and gun, full-court pressing, fast breaking ways.
Posted: Andrew Kanell