We will remember three moments from top-seeded Syracuse’s 72-65 white-knuckle victory over 16th-seeded UNC-Asheville on Thursday, each of which could have changed history.
So we must begin with those moments, despite how belabored and annoying moaning about officiating can be. Because only after that is out of the way can we get to the bigger takeaway from this upside-down game, when the 16-seed played like a one-seed and the one-seed played like a team that needed a whole bunch of help from their ineligible big man.
That takeaway is this: Syracuse will be running uphill for the rest of this tournament, starting Saturday against eighth-seeded Kansas State.
But first, before we get to that, we must play the old what-if game: Yes, UNC-Asheville played well enough to win Thursday, well enough to become the first 16-seed to topple a giant. That much is beyond a shadow of a doubt. And we can all point to these three instances where officials took the side of Syracuse on dubious calls and perhaps swayed the game.
There was a missed goaltending call on Syracuse early in the second half, robbing UNC-Asheville of two points. There was a lane violation on the front end of a Syracuse one-on-one with about a minute left and Syracuse up four — a call that replays confirmed was correct but a call that seemed akin to calling a balk in Game 7 of the World Series. (After missing the aborted free-throw attempt, Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine made the next two.) And there was the egregious missed call with 34.8 seconds left when Orange guard Brandon Triche fumbled the ball out of bounds, which referees incorrectly said was off a UNC-Asheville player.
“Sometimes you have to play everybody in the building,” said UNC-Asheville guard J.P. Primm in a post-game news conference that bordered on bitter. “The better team didn’t win tonight.”
By everybody in the building, what Primm meant was the referees. Because most of the other 18,927 people in the Consol Energy Center were on Primm’s side, turning the arena into one big UNC-Asheville cheering section. With each passing minute, the crowd’s frenzy reached a new level. At halftime, with UNC-Asheville leading 34-30, it was clear this was no home game for Syracuse, even though the section reserved for UNC-Asheville fans was barely two-thirds full. Fans here wanted to see history, and history meant Syracuse going down. UNC-Asheville 3-pointers in the second half made the arena shake. The botched calls against UNC-Asheville made fans hurl invective.
Any of these calls might have turned history in the other direction. But sports, as much as we all like to make it so the day after, isn’t a what-if proposition. Sports are about what happened today and what it all means for tomorrow.
And what Syracuse’s squeaker of a win means for tomorrow is this: There’s a giant hole in Syracuse’s paint now after 7-foot center and shot-blocking machine Fab Melo was declared ineligible for the tournament earlier this week. And no matter how vehemently Boeheim wants to deny it — and he was quite vehement after Thursday’s win — the makeup of this team is completely different without Melo’s intimidating presence down low.
“The fact that this game was close had nothing — nothing — to do with the center position,” Boeheim said at a post-game press conference, before anyone even asked. “Two or three isolations down there that I would have liked to have had our big guy in there.”
Ah, the coach doth protest too much.
All season long, Melo, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, has been the linchpin in Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense. He’s averaged nearly three blocks per game, he’s altered the direction of who-knows-how-many outside shots, and he’s become a master of taking the charge. His contributions don’t always show up on the stat sheet, but the big man’s presence is vital to what this team is.
Without Melo, whose 35-pound weight loss and defensive improvements are cited by Syracuse coaches as the biggest difference between this year’s team and the team that got bounced in the second round of the NCAAs last year, Syracuse will have its hands full against a tough, blue-collar Kansas State. After all, Kansas State features 6-foot-11 forward Jordan Henriquez, who blocked a Melo-esque six shots against Southern Miss on Thursday. Instead of matching up with Melo, Henriquez will face off with sophomore Baye Keita and freshman Rakeem Christmas, two still-developing talents.
Yes, Melo’s loss is devastating to this team, a fact Boeheim hinted at Thursday even if he didn’t address it directly.
“The first time we played without Fab at Notre Dame (in January, Syracuse’s first loss of the year), we played our worst game of the year,” Boeheim said. “I think this … wasn’t our worst game of the year, but it wasn’t good. I’m hopeful now we’ve got this game behind us and we’ll be better on Saturday.”
If you look hard enough, there were some bright points in Syracuse’s victory. James Southerland was an off-the-bench savior, connecting for a trio of three-pointers for 15 points in the game and adding a team-high eight rebounds. Syracuse pressured UNC-Asheville’s shooters, holding Matt Dickey, the Big South Conference Player of the Year, to one of 13 shooting. And then there’s the most recent history of one-seed struggles that could be seen as a positive: The last time a one-seed trailed at halftime was in 2002, when Kansas was down two against 16th-seeded Holy Cross.
The Jayhawks won that game and, it should be noted, made the Final Four.
That would be the best-case scenario for Syracuse: They got the bad game out of their system, they worked out the kinks of playing without Melo, they lit a fire under their tails and lifted themselves out of complacency.
But next up is a Kansas State team that’s given some great teams a few fits this year, including road wins at Baylor and at Missouri. This Wildcats team, as head coach Frank Martin loves to point out, set a school record for fewest points allowed since the shot clock was introduced. They have an efficient scorer in guard Rodney McGruder, who dropped 30 on Southern Miss, and an NBA-level big man in Henriquez.
So do you think Boeheim and his senior leaders, Jardine and Joseph, looked remarkably composed Thursday evening after their tense game? They were laughing and joking on the podium, and Joseph saluted the media after he was finished. But one would guess the truth is that was nervous laughter from Boeheim’s senior leaders, and Thursday’s near-disaster put a scare into Boeheim’s team.
If it didn’t, you better believe Saturday’s game will.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.