The news release was only 47 words, offering no explanation or insight. It said nothing but meant everything. With it, one of the nation’s most imposing teams is on the verge of imploding.
“Syracuse University sophomore men’s basketball center Fab Melo did not travel with the team to Pittsburgh, and will not take part in the NCAA Tournament due to an eligibility issue. Given University policy and federal student privacy laws, no further details can be provided at this time."
No further details can be provided. And for Syracuse, no further expectations can be permitted.
There are two elements to this story, neither of them good for Syracuse or Jim Boeheim. Let’s deal with the surface-level stuff first. This effectively ends Syracuse’s chance to win a national title and severely damages its chances to get to a Final Four. For a team that went 31-2 during the regular season, that’s a major disappointment.
Those unfamiliar with Syracuse might look at Melo’s rather ordinary statistics — he averaged 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds — and conclude the Orange can overcome his loss. Don’t be fooled. The 7-foot Brazilian drastically changes Syracuse’s effectiveness in its half-court offense and anchors its zone defense. Moreover, a team that balanced out its chronically poor defensive rebounding by being good on the offensive boards just lost its biggest threat in that department. Syracuse can try to adapt and play small and perhaps win some games in the tournament, but the Orange almost certainly can’t win it all without him.
Will Syracuse lose to No. 16 seed UNC-Asheville? No. Will Syracuse lose in the round of 32 to either Kansas State or Southern Miss? It’s not impossible, but still not probable. Beyond that? All bets are off.
But there are deeper issues here, beginning with the integrity of the NCAA selection process and how Syracuse — perhaps for a second time — has messed with it. What did Boeheim know and when did he know it? That matters here.
The NCAA selection committee has historically adjusted teams’ seeds based on the availability of key players. The most famous example was 2000, when Kenyon Martin broke his leg during the Conference USA tournament. Cincinnati, which was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, was subsequently downgraded to a No. 2 seed and lost in the second round. In 2010, Purdue was in contention for a No. 1 seed in late February until star Robbie Hummel tore his ACL. Despite losing just two more games, Purdue dropped to a No. 4.
If the committee had known about Melo’s ineligibility, the bracket could look considerably different, likely with Kansas as a No. 1 seed instead of a No. 2 in North Carolina’s region. Did Syracuse know about Melo and withhold that information in order to protect its seed?
Without official clarification, the timing is at least a little suspicious, especially because Syracuse was accused of doing the same thing two years ago when center Arinze Onuaku suffered a quadriceps injury in the Big East tournament that forced him to miss the NCAAs. Syracuse initially put word out that Onuaku had suffered a “strain” and would likely be ready to go for the first round; only after the bracket came out did the school rule him out of the first weekend games.
But this also plays into the larger narrative of Syracuse’s season, which has been filled with off-court distractions ranging from child molestation allegations against former assistant coach Bernie Fine to more recent reports of an NCAA inquiry into Syracuse’s drug-testing program.
The essence of that story, first reported by Yahoo! Sports, was that the Syracuse athletic department had failed to suspend 10 players who tested positive for recreational drugs since 2001, thus violating its own eligibility rules. Whether that rises to an NCAA issue remains to be seen, but it suggests a basketball program willing to overlook anything as long as it keeps churning out wins.
Which brings us back to Melo, who sat out of three games in January for what had been termed an academic issue. Syracuse didn’t play so well without Melo, and that academic issue got taken care of pretty quickly. He got back in the lineup and nobody really questioned it — except, apparently, the NCAA.
Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com reported that the two suspensions were related and the NCAA, according to a source, “went back and looked at his schoolwork…They are looking into the fact that he didn’t do some of the work.”
That’s a damning quote, which, if accurate, opens up all kinds of possibilities. Kids test positive for drugs? Who cares, as long as it keeps them on the floor? A crucial player is failing out of school? Do whatever it takes to get those grades up to snuff. If that’s the implication here, it’s a rough one for Syracuse – especially if the NCAA could ever connect those dots.
But for now, all we’ve got is a 47-word statement and a basketball team missing one of its best players. Given what was at stake for Syracuse in this tournament, that’s an ugly enough future as it is.