Kentucky ended up hoisting the NCAA Tournament trophy Monday night, but what if Fab Melo was still eligible? Would the Wildcats have had to go through Syracuse? And could the Orange have hung with UK for 40 minutes? Kentucky was not only disgustingly talented, but also played as well together as any team in recent memory. John Calipari kept repeating “we were the best team” and he’s 100% right. But let’s dance in Alternate 2012, where SU’s hopes weren’t dashed on the eve of the tourney.
If Melo plays, Syracuse beats Ohio State. In a TD Garden 75% Orange, Fab is able to bother Jared Sullinger into some uncharacteristic mistakes. Sully struggles against bigger players (see Kansas’ Jeff Withey in the Final Four). Sullinger also loves to lower his shoulder, and Melo would’ve drawn a handful of charges on him. Even in the foul fest the Elite 8 turned into, Melo provides five of them (Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita finished with four each). The Orange cuts down the nets in front of 12,000 delirious SU fans and moves on to New Orleans.
SU would have faced the Jayhawks in the Final Four, and while KU exceeded expectations all season, and Bill Self once again proved himself as incredible coach, the ‘Hawks don’t shoot well from outside. Kansas’ best 3-point shooter was Tyshawn Taylor at 38% on the year. Taylor started the NCAA Tournament missing his first twenty treys because he said he can’t shoot in domes. The length of Kentucky harassed Thomas Robinson all night, and Syracuse would’ve been just as long. In a defensive struggle, Kansas just can’t score enough. And if the Jayhawks wanted to push the pace and run, like they did against UNC, Syracuse would be licking its chops. Orange wins to advance to the title game.
This would have set up the showdown everyone wanted to see. The two best teams in the nation all year. The top two seeds in the tourney. Depth and chemistry vs. depth and chemistry. UK’s talent is superior to SU’s, and if the two teams played 10 times, the Wildcats win seven of them. But could Monday night have been one of those three Orange upsets?
The young Wildcats have never seen anything like Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, and that alone is enough for Syracuse to have a shot. Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb can be shaky with the ball, and Jim Boeheim would have extended the zone. Despite not being a great rebounder, Fab’s top priority would have been to keep Anthony Davis off the glass. Melo is one of the rare big men with the size and athleticism to actually box out The Brow. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has one weakness in his game, it’s his outside shot. He may have had problems penetrating the zone.
Anything can happen in a single elimination tournament, but Kentucky would have still been too much for SU. Between Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrance Jones and Davis, Syracuse would have been murdered on the boards. The Orange allowed mediocre rebounding teams to have field days on the offensive glass. But that UK trio is elite, and are all capable of having 20-rebound nights. The ‘Cats also had enough shooters to beat the zone. While MKG isn’t the best perimeter marksman, Lamb and Darius Miller cannot be left open. Marquis Teague isn’t afraid to let fly, and even Davis can step out to the 3-point line and shoot.
The UK front line all can serve as zone busters as well. Deshaun Thomas was a major problem for SU because he handled the ball out of the high post. Davis had 6 assists in the championship game, and developed as a point guard before an insane growth spurt. Jones can handle the ball and can shoot from 18 and in. Calipari uses Kidd-Gilchrist as an extra ball handler against full court presses, and he could play point forward if need be. Those guys would cause Boeheim nightmares running in and out of the high post.
Then there’s UK’s defense, with Davis patrolling the middle. By the end of our Fantasy Final Four, the Wildcats are just too much. The game would keep swinging from track meet to defensive struggle. SU is perhaps the only team in the country that could keep up with Kentucky in a fast-paced affair. In fact, Syracuse might be better in transition thanks to Dion Waiters’ ability getting to the basket. The game could go scoreless for 3 minutes, and then have runs where each team scores 10 in just 90 seconds. It would be one hell of a battle.
Davis finishes as the MOP while rebounding over and around Fab to the tune of 12 points and 15 boards. Lamb proves that he’s a big game player and shoots over the zone for 24 huge points. Kidd-Gilchrist gives Kris Joseph fits defensively, and Kris is limited on offense scoring only 8. Scoop goes out with a bang, doing what he pleases with the freshman Teague and has 16 and 8 assists, but turns it over 4 times. Waiters has 20, but in the end it’s not enough.
Syracuse had a tremendous season, and one to be proud of despite the bitter end. That ending can be blamed on Melo’s absence, but even if he was present in the Fantasy Final Four, UK still would have cut down the nets.
Posted: Craig Hoffman