Syracuse focusing on tourney, not Melo's absence

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim on loss of Fab Melo (left): 'We have nine guys that have played a lot this year.'
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim on loss of Fab Melo (left): 'We have nine guys that have played a lot this year.' (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: March 15, 2012

PITTSBURGH - Well, nobody was asking Jim Boeheim about Bernie Fine or the school's drug-testing policy. Nor was anybody asking about his team's 31-2 record.

The season began with allegations by two former ballboys that Fine, the coach's longtime righthand man, had sexually molested them starting in the 1980s. Boeheim first defended his longtime friend and then, after a very strange audiotape of Fine's wife talking to one of those ballboys emerged, the coach backtracked and Fine was fired by the university. He has not been charged with any crimes.

Syracuse won its first 20 games. Then, star center Fab Melo was deemed ineligible for something apparently involving academics. Nobody ever said exactly what. Without him, Syracuse finally lost. Melo was back after three games.

Syracuse kept winning, all the way to the Big East semifinals. Just before the tournament, Yahoo Sports revealed that the NCAA was looking into whether the basketball program had violated the school's own drug-testing policy some years ago. The coach shrugged.

Syracuse got the No. 1 seed in the East on Sunday. Less than 48 hours later, it was announced that Melo, the Big East defensive player of the year, would not be playing in the NCAA Tournament, ineligible again for some vague, apparently academic reason. Nobody is saying why.

Everybody wanted Boeheim or his players to reveal something yesterday. They all talked around it, but either they don't know or won't tell.

"I'm just dealing with this team and what we're doing," the coach tried after the first question. "That's all. I'm not going to comment about anything else. We'll write about it someday, all right."

But, coach. What about Fab? Did he let anybody down?

"Next question," Boeheim said. "I can't talk about this. But I will say he didn't let anybody down, in my opinion, all right? I know that's out there. I don't believe that to be true."

Boeheim's team will play No. 16 UNC-Asheville this afternoon (3:10 p.m.) at Consol Energy Center. There was some interest in the matchup, but not much.

In the short term, the Philly guys who have been getting major minutes, Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters, may have to do more. And the third Philly guy, freshman Rakeem Christmas, is likely to start in Melo's place.

"Coach said: 'Are you ready for this?' " Christmas said.

They told their young big man to get rebounds, block shots, set screens, get dunks. His mantra was "to play hard." Expecting him to be the defensive force Melo was would be expecting too much.

Waiters heard about the suspension from his coach on Tuesday. Nobody told him anything beyond the fact that Melo was not going to be playing.

"It hurt," Waiters said. "It was definitely shocking . . . It's time for everybody to man up."

How did he find out? What does he know?

"Coach told us Fab wasn't going to be able to travel with us due to certain circumstances," he said.

It is one thing to deal with off-court issues, quite another to play games without a key team member.

"It's tough now because you only get one shot," Waiters said. "It's either win or go home."

Waiters spoke with Melo and said, "He was upset. He was mad . . . said he was sorry."

Waiters has not been told what the problem might be.

"I honestly don't know," Waiters said.

He just knows his on-court life got more difficult, especially on defense without that backline safety net.

"It's tougher now because we got to keep the guards in front of us," Waiters said.

Jardine's next loss, if there is one, will be his last game. He has seen about everything in his 5 years at Syracuse. Now this.

"One of the things people have been saying [positively] about us all year is our depth," he said. "This is our opportunity. We got to believe in ourselves."

Won't be easy, especially as the games get more difficult.

"He changes shots, he takes charges," Jardine said of Melo. "He's the middle of our zone, allows us to be aggressive up top."

As much as they would like to ignore Melo's absence, it is very real in a basketball and human sense.

"Everything that happens affects you in some way," Boeheim said. "But life's about trying to overcome whatever has happened to you and getting yourself ready to do the next thing."

Syracuse has been quite good at doing that all season.

"The advantage we do have is that we have nine guys that have played a lot this year," Boeheim said. "We're not replacing a position with somebody who has not been a contributor."

They lost at Notre Dame, without Melo, the coach said, "because nine guys played bad. It wasn't because we didn't have Fab." Boeheim called this "the best regular-season accomplishment that I've ever been a part of in 36 years."

Which won't really help in the postseason. It is now about these players without their defensive rock, a player Boeheim called the most improved in 1 year that he has ever coached.

"We still believe in ourselves," the always-confident Jardine said. "We believe we are capable of winning the national championship with or without Fab."

They are all about to find out if it's true.

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