Fab Melo: Expectations were High
Big East coaches selected him as the league's preseason rookie of the year. Pundits predicted he would dominate college basketball games. He was sold as a one-and-done phenom, a can't miss prospect. The hype for Fab Melo reached ridiculous proportions before he ever participated in a Syracuse University practice.
And the big man from Brazil believed that all those people, all those experts, must know something he was unsure about himself.
"For all the expectations that people had about me, I thought it would be easier," Melo said. "I thought I would just go there and play and I would average 20 points a game, something like that. And when I get to the season, I realized it's not like that. I know I had to learn a lot to play the game."
As freshmen, Melo and fellow SU big man Baye Moussa Keita each endured the travails of playing in the post. Competitors were bigger and quicker. They understood body position and knew how to conserve energy. They were towers of steely muscle, intent upon making the game miserable for green, unsuspecting centers.
This year, the Orange center duo returns with invaluable perspective. Both spent parts of their summer playing internationally; both traveled with SU teammates on those trips. And as the 2011-12 season dawns, Melo and Keita hope to draw on all of those basketball lessons.
"This year, I know what to expect, especially what I'm going to see during the season," Melo said. "So now I know. So it's going to be better."
"The thing I learned last year was I didn't have any experience coming to the Big East, but with this season coming up, I kinda have an idea what Coach expects from us -- me and Fab," Keita said. "I feel like I'm more focused now because last year, I really didn't know what to do because of that lack of experience."
Keita pointed to a small scar, the size of a caterpillar, that decorates the base of his left hand. The mark is the result of April 4 surgery to correct a sprained ligament that hampered Keita most of last season.
The ligament damage prompted SU athletic trainers to protect the wrist and hand with ribbons of tape when he played. When inevitable sweat saturated that tape, Keita said, his hands became slick, which made catching the ball an adventure.
Now, after nearly two months of rehabilitation, Keita proclaims the wrist is free of pain and impediment. He wears the tape now only when he's lifting weights. (The slender Keita said his weight increased slightly, from 210 last year to 216.)
He wore the tape in Estonia, where he and SU point guard Brandon Triche played for a collection of East Coast All-Stars in August.
"We had a pretty good experience playing internationally," Keita said. "My hand was fine."
Melo, meanwhile, spent 15 days in his native Brazil, working out with a Brazilian national team that competed in the World University Games. Once Melo arrived with his team in China, he met Scoop Jardine, who was part of the USA Basketball contingent.
Melo said he lost 16 pounds over the summer. In two offseasons since signing with the Orange, he has whittled his 7-foot frame from 280 to 250, he said.
"I think I'm quicker. And my reaction is way better, so that's going to help me," Melo said. "My timing for rebounds and blocked shots is way better. Last year, I was watching (film) and I saw I was a little bit slower. So this year, I see that I can do that better."
Both centers said they will draw upon specific lessons learned from a season ago. Melo struggled to avoid foul trouble and was often the victim of quick whistles after he reached or attempted to block a shot he was out of position to swat. Keita struggled to absorb the punishing body blows of the big bodies that collided inside.
"One thing that I learned is I can't worry about the ball down low," Melo said. "I have to get the ball with the blocked shots. I can't foul guys when they're on the floor."
"Last year, I was mentally ready to play, but as soon as somebody hit you or whatever, that kind of slowed you down," Keita said. "I made it a lot about thinking. But this year, I'm just going to go out there and give 100 percent and see the result."