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Orange big men ready for Sycamores

They're on back-to-back pages in the Syracuse media guide. On their tiptoes, they would be more than 14 feet tall together. And their armspans seemingly could extend across the entire baseline.

As Syracuse (26-7) prepares for its NCAA tournament opener against Missouri Valley Conference champion Indiana State (20-13) on Friday, coach Jim Boeheim is counting on his two freshmen centers — the imposing 7-foot Fab Melo and wiry 6-10 Baye Moussa Keita — to ease the load in the middle of the Orange's signature 2-3 zone defense.

Be big on the big stage.

"Having those two big guys is huge," junior guard Scoop Jardine said. "For Baye and Fab to play well is going to help us because we need them bad. We need both of our big men."

A year ago, Boeheim's hopes of reaching a fourth Final Four vanished when bruising center Arinze Onuaku crashed to the Madison Square Garden floor with a career-ending knee injury during a loss to Georgetown in the Big East tournament.

A No. 1 seed in the 2010 NCAA tournament, Syracuse was forced to play power forward Rick Jackson and raw freshman DaShonte Riley at center.

The Orange made it past Vermont and Gonzaga, then bowed to Butler in the round of 16 as Jackson struggled to carry so much of the extra load that deep in the season.

The Orange, seeded third this year in the East, are ready to make good on the team's season-long theme of "Unfinished business."

Jackson, whose offseason training and revised diet transformed his body and stamina, leads the way with 17 double-doubles and is averaging a team-high 35.4 minutes. He expects plenty of help from the 245-pound Melo and 213-pound Keita, who have combined to average 25 minutes.

"Right now they're playing good," Jackson said. "Fab really came alive in the Big East tournament. If he's playing like that, I think we'll go far. He's getting his confidence and Baye did a great job all year for us. I think with those two big guys, just keep rotating them and we'll be fine."

Indiana State coach Greg Lansing, whose Sycamores have won five in a row, already has cast a wary eye.

"They've got some guys who can cover some ground," said Lansing, in his first season at Indiana State. "We haven't seen a lot of zone. It can paralyze you. You can't just stand around. When you get an open look, it's not going to be there long."

Boeheim tabbed Melo, a McDonald's All-American at Sagemont High School in Florida and preseason Big East rookie of the year, as his starter even though Keita had impressed more in preseason practice.

But Melo, who started playing basketball only five years ago after he literally outgrew soccer, struggled mightily with the pace of the college game, and Boeheim, more often than not, made the Brazilian his prized pupil on the bench.

"When he can get there, he can make plays," Boeheim said at midseason. "But he cannot get there at the pace that these games are played at."

Melo also found it difficult dealing with Boeheim's quick substitutions, missed two practices in early February, and was benched. Still, he helped key a win over Cincinnati in mid-January with a spirited performance after picking up three early fouls and played in crunch time in a late-season win at Georgetown.

Keita, a native of Senegal who attended Oak Hill Academy, gave a glimpse of his considerable talents by grabbing 15 rebounds in 17 minutes in an early season win over Canisius. His energetic style has led to more time on the floor.

"He's very active. He's had a really solid year," said Boeheim, who has guided the Orange to 28 NCAA tournament berths in 35 years as head coach. "I think it's tough for him to play a lot of minutes. I think he gets tired. When he plays a lot of minutes, he's going to get in foul trouble."

Their statistics are modest at best: Melo is 33 of 55 (60 percent) and has 75 points, 60 rebounds, 24 blocks, 10 steals, 23 turnovers, and two foul outs in 310 minutes over 24 starts; Keita is 31 of 55 shooting (56.4 percent) and has 77 points, 130 rebounds, 42 blocks, 21 steals, 20 turnovers, and five foul outs in 501 minutes over eight starts.

The Big East schedule is always daunting. This year, that has especially been the case, with a record 11 league teams receiving berths in the NCAA tournament. But Syracuse caught a break when it counted most, playing only twice in the final two weeks of the regular season. The extra practice time has helped the men in the middle, especially Melo.

"We played two games in 15 days," Boeheim said, "and I think those practices were huge for him."

It's showed.

Melo hit all five shots he took in scoring a season-high 10 points against DePaul in the final game of the regular season, then more than duplicated the feat in a 79-73 win over St. John's in a dazzling show in the Big East quarterfinals.

Melo was 5 for 5 for 12 points against the Red Storm and gave the Orange the lead for good at 70-68 with a layup off an inbound pass with 2 minutes left. He added another layup on a bounce pass from Brandon Triche that made it 74-70 with 32 seconds to play, prompting Boeheim to applaud when Melo came out of the game.

Jackson, the lone senior, is ready to applaud some more.

"We're just ready to go," he said. "This is my last go-round. I'm trying to go out with a bang. Just seeing those guys last year (Onuaku, Andy Rautins and Wes Johnson) once we lost, that's such a bad feeling to have knowing that it's your last game. I just want to end it on a good note."