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Pitoniak: Fabulous news for Orange

 The Melo-drama is over. At least for now. Fab Melo is officially back at center for Syracuse, and not a game too soon because the Orange men are about to embark on the toughest stretch of their basketball schedule, starting with a Saturday game against St. John's at their Big Apple home-away-from-dome.

            The absence of the 7-foot center from Brazil was painfully felt these past three games which saw SU suffer its first loss of the season and barely eek out wins in two other contests.

            Without Melo swatting away and altering shots in the middle, drawing charges and pulling down rebounds at both ends of the floor, Syracuse went from being dominating to vulnerable.

            In handing the Orange its first loss of the season a few weeks ago, Notre Dame had its way on the boards, outrebounding SU by 13. Irish center Jack Cooley looked like Bill Walton in his prime, bullying the Cuse with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

            Last Saturday's two-point victory against West Virginia in the Carrier Dome saw Syracuse get manhandled again. The Mountaineers won the battle of the boards convincingly, 40-21, and were especially dominant on the offensive boards, where they grabbed 18 rebounds and cashed in on numerous second-chance shots.

            Had Melo been in the lineup those three games, Notre Dame may not have handed SU its first loss of the season and the West Virginia and Cincinnati wins might have been routs instead of nailbiters.

            The sophomore center is a game-changer, averaging 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and nearly three blocks per game. Melo's stats are even more impressive in conference play, where he averages 8.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and four blocks.

            But the numbers don't tell the full story. Melo's presence makes teams reluctant to drive to the basket. Having him back there enables the Orange guards to play more aggressively and take more chances, often resulting in steals and easy fast-break hoops.

            The Orange men weren't a powerful rebounding club to begin with, but without Melo they had been putrid.

            He is not the most talented player in SU's lineup, but he's probably the most indispensible, and having him back will enable the Orange to dream once more about a run to the Final Four and the national title.

***

            The Orange men have an 85-71 record all-time in Madison Square Garden, including a 42-25 record in Big East Tournament games there. But don't expect them to have an easy time against St. John's Saturday at noon. Despite their struggles this season, the Johnnies recently blew out a West Virginia team that took SU to the limit at home. If Syracuse isn't ready to play, they definitely can lose this game.

            Their trip to New York will be followed by challenging home game against Georgetown (next Wednesday) and Connecticut (three days later.)  This concluding eight-game regular season stretch features home-and-away games vs. both UConn and Louisville, a road game at Rutgers and a home game against South Florida.

            It's conceivable that SU could win out. It's also conceivable that given the familiarity-breeds-contempt nature of conference play that the Orange could lose two or three games before the Big East tournament commences in March.

            One of the things working in Syracuse's favor is that the conference clearly isn't as strong this year. Last season, the Big East placed a record 11 teams in the NCAAs, and UConn, a middle-of-the-road seed among its league's teams, wound up winning it all.

            This season, we're probably looking at seven Big East qualifiers. SU (No. 2), Georgetown (14th) and Marquette (15th) are the only teams in the league ranked in the Top 25.

***
            A victory Saturday would enable Jim Boeheim to tie Dean Smith for third place on the Division I men's victory list with 879. And it would set up the possibility of him surpassing the former North Carolina legend at next Wednesday's home game. Those two victories also would allow Boeheim to claim the No. 1 spot for most victories by a coach at one school - a milestone that would have even greater meaning to the guy who eschewed offers to go elsewhere and has stayed put for 36 years running.
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