After losing Rick Jackson to graduation, many thought Syracuse would struggle to replace his 10.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. While the Orange have missed Jackson on the boards, sophomore Fab Melo has been a more imposing presence than his predecessor on the defensive end.
After blocking a Syracuse record 10 shots in a 75-49 victory over Seton Hall where the Pirates managed just 15 first-half points, Melo is now averaging almost three blocks per game. That average puts Syracuse's most improved player this season just outside the national top 10, no small feat considering most of the players above him play at a much lower competition level.
Much has been made of Melo's transformation from last season, when he weighed about 275 pounds and averaged fewer than ten minutes per game. Much like highly-touted recruits Michael Carter-Williams and Rakeem Christmas this season, Melo was a significant disappointment as a freshman.
The seven-foot center came back ready in 2011, shedding over 30 pounds to drop a more desirable playing weight of 244 pounds. While Jackson was a solid interior defender, Melo's presence alone changes far more shots than the 6-9 Jackson could have dreamed of.
As much as I liked Jackson, Syracuse is better off with Melo at center this season than they were with Jackson and the same lineup last year. It helps that Melo has averaged over 20 minutes per game and shown the ability to run the court effectively, picking up cheap buckets as a trailer.
Melo isn't the only sophomore to come back and play a bigger role for the Orange this season, as guard Dion Waiters has almost doubled his scoring average, assists and steals while shooting over 50 percent from the field and providing a spark off the bench. Waiters was great once again against the Pirates, scoring 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting with three assists and three steals.
His improvement has led to an increase in playing time, which has helped Jim Boeheim limit the minutes of turnover-prone senior Scoop Jardine this season. Jardine is much more effective playing around 20 minutes per game than he was playing 30.
Seton Hall's Herb Pope came into the game with Syracuse averaging over 20 points per game and more than 11 rebounds. He left after a four-point night where he made just two of his nine shots. As a result, his team scored just 49 points. Other teams with big-time scorers who rely on getting points in the paint may face similar fates against the Orange.
Syracuse has always been a great defensive team in their 2-3 zone, but Melo's presence in the paint just may propel this team to their first Final Four since 2003 when they won the national title behind another Melo, Carmelo Anthony. It's not unfathomable to think that the nation's current top team could finish the season right where they are now: On top of the college basketball world.