Syracuse nearly made history Thursday. The Orange almost became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.
In their game against UNC-Asheville, Syracuse trailed much of time and held just a three-point lead with 25 seconds remaining before prevailing 72-65.
After the game, UNC-Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach remarked, “Syracuse is better than Asheville. Tonight we were better than Syracuse.”
Bill Littlefield spoke with Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post-Standard, who was at the game, to see if Biedenbach’s assessment was accurate.“[The Bulldogs] played better than Syracuse for 38 minutes,” Waters said. “They were right there, they had a chance, but they didn’t close out the game, and that’s part of college basketball. The scoreboard says you have to play for 40.”
Perhaps part of the reason the game was so close was that Syracuse was without sophomore center, and Big East Defensive Player of The Year, Fab Melo, who was declared ineligible for the tournament earlier this week. Neither the university nor the NCAA have announced the official reason for Melo’s ineligibility.
“I’ve been told by a couple of sources that it has to do with academics,” Waters said. “He missed three games in the middle of the season, back in late January, also due to academics, so I think the two suspensions might have something to do with each other, but we’re just not absolutely sure right now.”
Melo’s absence didn’t cost them the game on Thursday, but Waters believes losing a big man in the middle could certainly cause problems for the Orange in the later rounds.
“UNC-Asheville’s tallest starter was just 6-foot-5, but from here on out, they’re going to run into bigger, stronger teams, and not having your 7-footer is going to cause problems.”
Those problems might crop up in their very next game.
“Kansas State is the exact type of opponent where Syracuse is going to miss Fab Melo the most,” Waters said. “Kansas State was the Big 12 Conference’s top rebounding team. They get a lot of points off of second-chance opportunities. Syracuse has had a lot of problems on their defensive end of the floor in terms of rebounding the basketball all year long, even when they had Fab Melo.”
Even before Melo’s current suspension, the Orange have been surrounded by controversy for much of the season. First, there were sexual abuse allegations against former assistant coach Bernie Fine then allegations that the program has violated the NCAA’s drug policies.
Waters says those stories have soured some of the Syracuse fan base.
“A lot of fans aren’t real happy. They have to muster their support, if you will, for this team,” Waters said. ”The sexual abuse allegations against the former assistant coach has nothing to do with the players that are on the floor. I think that’s what fans are trying to focus on. The drug policy issue… the report had none of the current players involved. For the program in general, I think it’s cast a huge shadow over the Syracuse men’s basketball program, and one that eventually some coaches and administrators are going to have to answer to.”