Melo's absence gives 'Cuse gaping hole

It's been a season of problems for Syracuse.

But now, the controversial Orange finally face one that could very well derail a season that has produced the best record of Jim Boeheim's 36 years as their coach.

Because with East Region No. 1 seed Syracuse's announcement Tuesday that starting center Fab Melo has been ruled ineligible for the NCAA tournament, the Orange have a hole the size of the Carrier Dome to fill defensively.

One so gaping without Melo in the middle of Boeheim's trademark 2-3 zone that even diehard Orange fans were tearing up their entries for office pools after hearing the news. Their team had been a popular pick to return to the Final Four in New Orleans, which last hosted the event in 2003 when Boeheim won his only national championship with a Melo -- then-star freshman Carmelo Anthony.

Unlike Anthony, Fab Melo, a 7-foot, 255-pound sophomore, hardly filled stat sheets with his season averages of 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots. But it was his shot-altering presence inside, as well his willingness to take charges, that mattered most this season and earned him the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award.

And when he missed three games in late January because of an academic issue, then-No. 1 Syracuse suffered its only regular-season loss, a 67-58 defeat at Notre Dame in which Fighting Irish forward Jack Cooley dominated so much inside that for one night he looked an athletic high-riser instead of his usual brutish, plodding self.

Now, without Melo again, Boeheim will need to take advantage of perhaps the deepest team he has ever had and speed up the game offensively, as well as trap more out of his zone defense, much like the Orange did in 2010.

Yet even with changes, Syracuse (31-2) is now easily the most vulnerable top seed in the NCAA tournament, maybe even as soon as its second game if it plays frenetic Kansas State (21-10). Not that Boeheim will get much sympathy after his program's scandal-filled past five months.

In fact, Melo's ineligibilty is almost fitting for a program that seems to have been spiraling out of control for years.

In November, there was the firing of longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine after allegations that he molested a former ball boy and his stepbrother. Boeheim lashed out about the dismissal, only to later retract his comments, and a defamation lawsuit was filed against Syracuse and Boeheim by Fine's accusers.

Last week, Yahoo Sports reported that Syracuse had played ineligible players during the past decade after it failed to adhere to its own drug policy, which the Orange said does not involve current players and admitted to self-reporting. Boeheim said the issue was presented to the NCAA five years ago, but college sports' governing body said it was not made aware of the situation until October 2010.

It has all created a dark cloud that has hung over Syracuse this season. The same kind of stigma that overshawdowed Connecticut's national-championship run last season while the program was on probation.

At least college basketball won't have to worry about such a scenario with Syracuse during this NCAA tournament. But with the Orange's latest problem, they are reelng again -- but for once it's on the court.