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Syracuse and The Fabulous Melo

Make no mistake, Syracuse is a serious national championship contender. Admittedly, they spent the first few weeks of the season crashing at a flophouse in Cupcake City, shacking up with the likes of Colgate, Fordham and Eastern Michigan. But they’ve also beaten Virginia Tech, Stanford and Florida, who are a combined 18-6 to start the season. The Orange are now 8-0 and, after Friday’s game against Florida, already have a win over a top-10 team to hang their hats on.

This early season dominance has been powered mostly with defensive swarm and smarm. By Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Syracuse had the 11th stingiest defense in the country entering Monday night’s action. Credit should be graciously heaped on both the players and system. Jim Boeheim brought the 2-3 zone to Syracuse in the late Mesozoic era, and you wouldn’t still be reading this if you hadn’t seen it a time or two. The heart of that defense, as with most zones, is forcing action to the perimeter.  Nothing different this year as 37.9% of their opponents’ scoring has come from beyond the three-point line, the 11th highest mark in the nation. But they’ve staunchly defended the interior, not just goaded teams away from the basket. They have the 4th best Blk% in the country and have held opponents to just 46.4% shooting on shots at the rim.

I know, I know, that rented flat in Cupcake City is inflating these stats, but Syracuse has made some dramatic improvements. Much of this progress can be tracked back to sophomore Fab Melo. Last season, Melo came in with sky-high expectations as a McDonald’s All-American and the 2nd ranked center in his high school class, according to Rivals.com. To say he underwhelmed as a freshman is like saying Steven Wright can keep a straight face. Melo’s struggles made it hard for Boeheim to keep him on the floor, and his lack of playing time was as constant reminder of his lack of production.

This season, Melo’s improvements have come in many areas – confidence, footwork, spatial awareness, timing, general oafishness. These have all manifested in changes in three specific statistical categories. He’s cut his foul rate significantly. He’s blocking shots at a prodigious rate. He’s controlling the offensive glass.

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Melo ranks 9th in the nation in Blk%, and 44th in ORB%. Cutting his foul rate has meant he could theoretically play an entire game. He’s also cut his offensive TO% on offense from 30.3% to 21.4%, which means Boeheim might actually want to keep him on the floor for an entire game.

Melo’s defensive presence on the back line is allowing Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph to play to their maverick, gambling natures, jumping passing lanes and pursuing the ball at all costs. As of Monday afternoon, Syracuse had the highest Stl% in the nation and the second highest defensive TO% in the nation. In the last nine years, a Jim Boeheim coached team has never finished higher than 71st in the nation in defensive TO%. No offense to Arinze Onuaku, but they haven’t had a defensive presence like Melo protecting the basket in that time either.

The Orange also have the 7th best offense in the country to go along with that swarming defense. They don’t impress in many areas at that end of the floor. Shoot is not a great strength. They make careless turnovers, and have one of the lowest FTA/FGA ratios in the country. The thing that’s carrying their offense is that they grab 45.2% of their own misses, the best mark in the country. If you’re going to extend the possession on half of your missed shots; Waiters, Triche and Jardine have a little more freedom to launch questionable heaves from the perimeter.

Despite all these positives, I have to remind myself and the rest of Central New York to temper their enthusiasm. Melo still plays like he’s wearing chain mail gloves on offense. Anyone with 225 pounds and the inclination can back him under the basket when he’s defending the post. Even Dick Vitale can’t find something positive to say about his jumpshot. He’s still a long way from being skilled enough to cement his place as can’t miss draft prospect. Melo has presented his case for being a legitimate basketball player, but we’ll need to see some evidence from conference play before rendering our

The rest of Syracuse isn’t that different from years past (excepting a Melo of a different sort). They have length and athleticism, competent scorers and reasonably heady play in the back-court. They have depth and experience, swagger and youthful exuberance. They have Jim Boeheim. What they haven’t had in the past decade is a big man quite as big, or with quite as much potential as Fab Melo.