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The Early Lead
Posted at 01:31 PM ET, 02/02/2012

With Fab Melo back, is Syracuse the favorite to win the national title?


Syracuse's Fab Melo, center, will return from a three-game absence Saturday. (Kevin Rivoli - AP)
Syracuse is one of the better teams in the country without center Fab Melo. But with the 7-foot Brazilian sophomore in the lineup, the Orange could very well be the favorite to win the national championship.

After missing three games because of a reported academic issue, Melo is poised to return to the Orange for its next game, which is bad news for the rest of the Big East.

Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post-Standard, citing two sources close to the program, first reported Wednesday that Melo had been cleared to play against St. John’s on Saturday. Melo had been sidelined three games because of an academic issue that occurred in the first semester, a source had told ESPN.com’s Andy Katz.

Syracuse has not announced any details regarding Melo’s absence, citing university policy and federal student privacy laws. The university did announce Thursday morning that Melo would return Saturday against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.

Melo, who averages 7.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, is not one of the nation’s best players. He certainly has room for improvement as an offensive threat. And he is not as instrumental in Syracuse’s success as another “Melo” (Carmelo Anthony) was during Jim Boeheim’s national title run in 2003.

But for Syracuse this season, he is among its most valuable players. He leads the team with three blocks per game. And he is the anchor of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense.

Without Melo, Syracuse went 2-1, the lone loss coming Jan. 21 in a 67-58 setback at Notre Dame. In that game, Notre Dame center Jack Cooley scored 17 points — about 7 points above his average — as he matched up primarily against freshman Rakeem Christmas, who filled the void left by Melo.

The Orange needed to rally to beat a sometimes dangerous Cincinnati team on the road. It also beat West Virginia after center Baye Keita appeared to get away with a goaltending call on what would have been a potential game-tying basket in the waning moments by the Mountaineers.

With the help of Melo, Syracuse ranks second nationally — behind only Kentucky — in defensive block percentage (21.4 percent). And opponents are able to get just 48.7 percent of their points against Syracuse inside the three-point arc. This may be the deepest Syracuse team that Boeheim has had, and Melo is undoubtedly a key component.

After the St. John’s game, Syracuse will enter the toughest stretch of its remaining regular season schedule, with consecutive games against Georgetown, Connecticut and Louisville, three top-30 RPI teams. Of those three, only the Louisville game is on the road.

With Melo back, the opportunity to steal a victory against Syracuse may be gone.

More on Washington Post Sports

Maryland coverage at Terrapins Insider

Virginia coverage at Cavaliers Journal

Virginia Tech coverage at Hokies Journal

By  |  01:31 PM ET, 02/02/2012

 
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