Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Two Syracuse stars named Melo will both play on the Madison Square Garden court on Saturday.
But Fab Melo stands a much better chance of competing for a championship this season than Carmelo does.
The return of the 7-foot Melo from a three-game absence bodes well for Syracuse’s chances at challenging for Big East and NCAA championships.
“Fab Melo is back now so I think that that strengthens Syracuse,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said Thursday. “Not that they needed strengthening. I think they’re back to what they once were.”
Melo and No. 2 Syracuse (22-1, 9-1 Big East) will visit St. John’s (10-12, 4-6) at noon, while Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks will host the Nets at 7:30 in a day-night Garden double-header.
St. John’s has two of the best freshmen in the Big East in Moe Harkless — he of the 30-point, 13-rebound game at Duke — and D’Angelo Harrison — who poured in a career-high 29 points in Wednesday’s 87-81 win at DePaul.
But both players will be inhibited in their ability to drive and swoop to the basket by the 7-foot Melo, averaging 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.
“Fab Melo is like the air traffic controller on the back line of the Syracuse 2-3 zone,” said Johnnies coach Steve Lavin, who remains off the sidelines as he recovers from prostate cancer surgery.
“When you have someone with his size, it obviously changes the game because you have to be mindful and aware that he can come over and block shots.”
A year ago, Melo was the Preseason Big East Rookie of the Year, but failed to live up to expectations.
Only now that he’s lost weight and committed himself to defense is he meeting those expectations.
The 6-8 Harkless, meantime, is a Big East Rookie of the Year candidate now because he’s averaging 16.3 points and 8.7 rebounds.
Harkless initially committed to UConn, but changed his mind and opted to stay home and play for Lavin.
“When you’re the head coach at St. John’s it’s vital that you’re able to assure a share of the best players in the tri-state area,” Lavin said. “A priority was to sign a player that could help our program and Moe happened to also be in New York and so it was the best of both worlds. He was a local product and he has all the skills and abilities that you look for in a basketball player.
“He’s across the board a remarkable young man. He’s well mannered. He’s articulate. He’s bright. he’s very humble. And the numbers speak for themselves in terms of what he’s done in a short time here at St. John’s with leading this young team.”
Harrison, out of Missouri City, Texas, is not a New York City product, but Lavin sensed that he could have a major impact. Now he’s leading all Big East freshmen at 16.4 points a game.
“When I recruited him I felt he had the opportunity to be the best combo guard that I’ve ever coached,” Lavin said. “Based on potential he would rate right there with the best combo guards that I had recruited.
“He has that ability to stroke the ball from long range. He’s also a sharp-shooter or a marksman but he has play-making ability off the bounce in the halfcourt as well. His vision is exceptional.”
After sometimes playing out of control earlier this season, Harrison has now calmed down and continues to mature.
“He’s now maneuvering at speeds where he’s under control and able to play-make when he gets into the heart of opponents’ defenses after breaking them down,” Lavin said.
The problem on Saturday will be that when Harkless and Harrison maneuver into the “heart of the defense,” Melo will be looming.
“They’ve got that physical force in the middle,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of the Orange. “They’ve always been at their best in that zone when they’ve got that physical presence in the zone.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.