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Melo’s improved play has SU smiling

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Of all the statistics showing Fab Melo’s rapid development in his sophomore season at Syracuse, one stands out.

Last year, when Melo was forced to learn first-hand just how fast and physical the college game could be, the 7-foot Brazilian center logged just over nine minutes of playing time per game for the Orange.

The main reason was that Melo was so out of shape he couldn’t keep up with the action. And he drew so many cheap fouls early in games, coach Jim Boeheim was forced to sit Melo for long periods.

This season, Melo’s on-court time has increased to the point where he now ranks third on the team in average minutes played (22.5 per game). He logged 32 minutes against Stanford, and has played at least 25 minutes four other times.

His presence alone in the middle of the SU 2-3 zone has changed the defensive dynamic of the Orange. And because he is now at least a piece of SU’s offensive puzzle, he warrants attention in the pivot.

Boeheim has an abundance of talent along with solid experience as the Orange has gone 18-0 and has risen to the top of the polls. But the one main question that was asked in the preseason, what would the Orange do without Rick Jackson, has been answered by the transformation of Fab Melo.

In 18 games, the sophomore already has more points (129-77), rebounds (98-64) and blocks (70-25) than he did in 33 games a season ago.

Melo has tied his career-high in points (12) three times, and he set a school record with 10 blocks against Seton Hall.

“Last year, I think I was a little afraid of everything,” Melo said. “I knew it would be hard, but I don’t think I realized how hard it would be. Now it’s all just a lot easier.”

Because Melo has dropped 30 pounds, his stamina and endurance have consequently increased to the point where he can now run up and down the court for minutes at a time instead of seconds.

”He just hadn’t played enough to know the game, and he wasn’t in the kind of shape you needed to be in,” Boeheim said. “His ability was there, but he couldn’t get up and down the court. He couldn’t get in position to make plays. He worked hard, but he was just too far behind.”

Melo was admittedly “over his head’’ when he arrived at SU as a McDonald’s All-American, and heralded as one of the top 10 recruits in the country.

Melo’s senior season averages in high school at Sagemont, Fla. — 15 points and 11 rebounds — were nice, but a bit misleading. He wasn’t in great shape (Melo’s weight fluctuated from 245 when he first arrived at Sagemont to as high as 281), and he had only raw basketball skills because he had played only three years of competitive hoops since arriving in the U.S.

But he was so much bigger and stronger than everyone else that it still was easy for him to dominate. Too easy in some ways.

So when he failed to live up to expectations, fans, media and even teammates wondered if he would ever be the player he was supposed to be.

“You could see the potential, but it never came out,’’ SU senior guard Scoop Jardine said. “Fab really worked hard and tried as best he could. But being out of shape really set him back.’’

“People here, they expect so much of you,” Melo said. “They want to know why I’m not playing well. There’s so much attention.”

To add insult to injury, Melo was charged with fourth degree criminal mischief in the offseason after a physical altercation with his girl friend. Last month, a judge said he would drop the charge if Melo stayed out of trouble for a year.

Trying to put his poor play from last season and the incident with his girlfriend behind him, Melo dedicated his summer to improving on and off the court.

Melo committed to running daily and changed his diet.

When school began and informal practices started, teammates couldn’t get over Melo’s new body and attitude.

“He looked like a totally different person,’’ SU senior forward Kris Joseph said. “And you could also tell he was a lot more comfortable with who he was, and the fact that he was now an integral part of the Syracuse program.’’

Boeheim said Melo has “only scratched the surface. He’s one of the big guys that, in the old days, would take about four years and then they’d play in the NBA. In today’s world, big kids don’t stick around long enough to get to that point. I don’t think he’s 20 percent of where he’ll be someday.”

Now, instead of moans and groans, Carrier Dome fans constantly cheer Melo’s efforts. That, more than any statistic, makes the always cheerful big man smile.

“Those people out there now accept me as one of their own,’’ he said. “It’s just gratifying to know that all of the hard work I’ve put in is paying off.’’

Melo’s only goal is to help lead SU to Big East Conference and national titles before his time at SU is over.

“I want to part of something special. That’s why I came here.’’

Up is down

Taking a look at the Big East standings just three weeks into the season, you realize what a topsy-turvy campaign this could be.

Teams usually at the top of the league, such as Pittsburgh, Villanova and Louisville, are residing near the bottom.

Pittsburgh began the year ranked 10th in the nation and picked to finish fourth in the Big East. The Panthers are 11-6 overall and 0-4 in the Big East, dead last, after an abysmal 62-39 loss at home to Rutgers on Wednesday.

Villanova is below .500 overall (8-9) and is an unusual 1-4 in the conference after Wednesday’s loss versus Syracuse.

Two weeks ago, Louisville was No. 4 in the country. The Cardinals are now in a tie for 12th place with a 1-3 league record after Tuesday’s 21-point wipeout at Providence.

On the other end, Seton Hall is 4-1, while Notre Dame that was picked 12th in the preseason and Cincinnati, coming off that ugly brawl with city rival Xavier, are off to 3-1 conference starts.

“Every year we say something about how tough the Big East is,’’ Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “One year, it’s ‘Wow, we’re just beating each other up.’ Other years, the teams that weren’t supposed to be good are good. This year, anybody and everybody can be good.’’

Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said the difference between winning and losing in the Big East is “incremental. Just look at us. Syracuse took us out to the woodshed (26-point loss), then we turn around and beat Connecticut. It’s going to be like that all season.’’

Louisville coach Rick Pitino said don’t be misled by anybody’s record at this point.

“You usually are what you are, ‘‘ Pitino said. “Were we the fourth best team in the country? Certainly not. But we’re not as bad as we looked at Providence, either.’’

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