Men’s Big East Notebook

Syracuse does not look like an elite team without Fab Melo

The Orange suffered their first loss of the season on Saturday, a 67-58 setback at Notre Dame, after being forced to play without sophomore center Fab Melo because of unresolved academic issues.

The game against the Irish was the first Melo missed this season, and it is not known when or if he will return this season.

Syracuse responded by picking up a 60-53 win at Cincinnati Monday night, maintaining sole possession of first place in the Big East.

Melo’s replacements, sophomore center Baye Moussa Keita and freshman forward Rakeem Christmas have combined for 5.4 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game.

Melo, on the other hand, was averaging 3.0 blocks and 5.7 rebounds per game and had been a force on the interior during the Orange’s 20-0 start.

Without the center’s presence in the middle of Syracuse’s famous 2-3 zone defense, the Orange will be vulnerable against teams who can get the ball into the post and get easy baskets.

Syracuse has a myriad of depth, with 10 players averaging at least 12.1 minutes per game, but coach Jim Boeheim may have to use a smaller lineup to compensate a lack of size in the middle during Melo’s absence.

Melo has made great strides from last season — he came to Syracuse as a highly touted recruit but averaged just 2.3 points per game and 1.9 rebounds per game — and the Big East race may be wide open without him on the floor.

South Florida’s surprising surge continues

While the Bulls’ 12-8 overall record isn’t exactly impressive, it is difficult to find a bad loss for the Bulls this season, sans a 53-49 loss to Penn State on Nov. 20 in Uncasville, Conn.

A 75-59 win at DePaul on Sunday pushed South Florida’s Big East record to 5-2, good for a tie for third place with Marquette and West Virginia.

Senior forward Augustus Gilchrist and junior guard Jawanza Poland combined for 41 points against the Blue Demons and have done a good job replacing Dominique Jones, who was drafted 25th overall in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies.

Poland leads the team in scoring at 12.6 points per game and is shooting 49.3 percent from the field. Junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick was held scoreless in the win over DePaul but snagged eight rebounds and is averaging 7.1 rebounds per game this season.

The win over the Blue Demons gave the Bulls their fifth win in the last six games, including a 74-57 road win over Villanova on Jan. 5 and a 56-55 win over Seton Hall on Jan. 13.

The Bulls enter the Bradley Center tonight but play just four teams ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll — all on the road — over their final 11 regular season games.

The Bulls could conceivably finish 9-9 in Big East play, which would likely earn them a first-round bye in the Big East Championship tournament for the first time in program history.

In fact, the Bulls have never finished better than a tie for ninth place in Big East play, going 9-9 in the 2009-2010 season.

Player of the week

Jason Clark, senior guard, Georgetown

Clark notched a career-high 31 points on 11-of-14 shooting in the Hoyas 83-75 win at DePaul on Jan. 17 and followed that up with 11 crucial points in Georgetown’s 52-50 win over Rutgers on Saturday.

Clark leads the Hoyas with 15.9 points per game and is also shooting 50.2 percent from the field, which ranks second on the team. Clark’s 2.0 steals per game also ranks him seventh in the Big East.

Game of the week

West Virginia at Syracuse, Saturday, Jan. 28

If the Mountaineers win at St. John’s on Jan. 25, they will enter the Carrier Dome with a chance to move within a half game of first place in the conference standings

West Virginia handed Cincinnati its second Big East loss on Saturday, and has already beaten Georgetown. Syracuse will look to bolster its first-place lead with another quality win. Either team will boost its chances of earning a double-bye in the Big East Championship tournament with a win.

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