Inside the Consol Enery Arena on Wednesday, all the talk was about Fab Melo and how Syracuse would move forward without him.
The top seeded Orange have lost their starting center who was also the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. There's no doubt that it makes Syracuse's situation more difficult but senior guard Scoop Jardine also noted that it would give the team a chance to prove just how much talent they have on the bench.
The bulk of the responsibility will fall on two players who have struggled to find playing time for big chunks of the season. When they did get on the floor, they often got a quick trip back to the bench. Backup center Baye Moussa Keita was a key reserve for SU last season but has not been much a factor so far this year. Keita's high energy style of play has gotten him into foul trouble and at times he seemed to have difficulty securing rebounds. Last season he also dealt with a hand injury. On Wednesday, Keita said his hand felt fine and he was ready to play more minutes in the tournament. If he can give SU 7-8 rebounds in twenty to twenty five minutes on the floor, the Orange could be OK.
Freshman Rakeem Christmas will also be asked to help carry the load and may start in Melo's place. Christmas shined when Melo was out earlier in the season and also played well at the Big East Tournament. Christmas is also a slightly more polished offensive player than Keita but has not received much playing time. Christmas started at power forward for most of the season but was often taken out just a few minutes into the game and sometimes never returned. If Christmas can hold down the middle of the zone and make it difficult for other teams to get offensive rebounds, the Orange could be OK.
Both Keita and Christmas got extra attention from the SU coaches at Wednesday's practice. Assistant coach Mike Hopkins had both players take part in a drill that simulates small defenders swarming them around the basket when they have the ball. Hopkins and other SU staff intentionally fouled Keita and Christmas as they tried to score the ball - training them to power through the contact and use their height.
Syracuse's defensive identity was largely based around Fab Melo intimidating opposing players in the paint. Without him, the Orange's already notable rebounding problems will be even more of a concern. Keita and Christmas are talented players that could make an impact and could benefit from opposing teams underestimating them.