Boeheim looks for smart frontcourt play in season opener vs. Northern Iowa

Fab Melo and the rest of the Syracuse frontcourt will look to stay out of foul trouble in SU's season opener vs. Northern Iowa Friday.

For a moment, there was confusion.

‘Baye, get up,’ Kris Joseph said to Baye Moussa Keita on the bench at the four-minute mark of the first half of Syracuse’s 91-48 exhibition win over Le Moyne Tuesday. ‘C.J., move down,’ he said to freshman forward C.J. Fair.

Rick Jackson had just picked up his second foul. Fab Melo already had three. And for a second, Joseph was fully preparing for a Fair-Moussa Keita frontcourt.

SU head coach Jim Boeheim ultimately took a chance by leaving Jackson in the game with two fouls. With SU sophomore center DaShonte Riley likely out for the entire season, it’s likely something Boeheim will have to weigh consistently throughout the Orange’s regular season. That season starts Friday in the Carrier Dome with a 7 p.m. matchup against Northern Iowa, a team that made the Sweet 16 last season after upsetting top-seeded Kansas in the second round.

The date with the Panthers opens a stretch of three games in five days for the Orange. It also opens what Boeheim said is the toughest nonconference schedule for SU in years, starting with a team he thinks should make it back to the NCAA Tournament.

‘Northern Iowa is an NCAA (Tournament) team,’ Boeheim said. ‘They’re coming off a great year last year. I think they’ll be just as good this year. They lost a couple guys, like we did. They’re very good and they’ve replaced those guys, like we did. … We’re looking forward to Friday.’

And paramount to success in that challenging nonconference slate is the performance of a slim group of big men capable of playing the power forward and center positions. With Riley out, Jackson and Melo have started at the four and five positions through the first two exhibition games, while Moussa Keita has averaged 16 minutes per game in spelling both of them.

Boeheim and the Orange got a glimpse against Le Moyne of what could happen if two of those three get into foul trouble. It will be a decision between playing one of the foul-plagued big men or moving small forwards down, such as Fair, James Southerland or Mookie Jones.

And in that tough nonconference schedule, Boeheim won’t have the luxury of taking chances like he did against the Dolphins without having to live with the good or bad repercussions. But he’s not worried about the situation — for now.

‘I don’t worry about those things,’ Boeheim said. ‘If they happen, they happen. It’s not unusual with freshman players. There’s nothing you can do about it. Worrying doesn’t do any good. They have to learn how to play.’

To Boeheim, it’s just a matter of silly freshman mistakes. The two freshmen — Melo and Moussa Keita — have to learn how to play smarter.

That means staying away from unnecessary foul situations in the first few minutes of the game. That means always squaring up on defense and not getting lazy.

‘We have two big guys, fortunately,’ Boeheim said. ‘And then we still have Rick (Jackson) to go back on, so I think we have more than enough in there. They’re going to get into foul trouble. It’s just part of learning how to play college basketball. It takes time, and it’s normal for freshman big guys.’

Melo and Moussa Keita are already getting the message. It was not more evident than in Melo’s postgame reaction to his third foul, which he called a ‘stupid freshman mistake.’

He picked up his third foul of the contest with 7:45 remaining in the first half, an off-ball, silly foul that Boeheim preaches against. Boeheim went with one of the changeups in lineups after that foul, subbing Jackson back in to play with Fair, Jones, Southerland and Dion Waiters.

‘I thought he would be mad off my third foul,’ Melo said of Boeheim. ‘But he just said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just play smart the next play.”

Playing smart is something Syracuse’s big men will have to do to avoid similar sticky situations against opponents like Northern Iowa. To Moussa Keita, who played 17 minutes Tuesday without registering a foul, it’s that simple.

‘We just have to play smart,’ Moussa Keita said. ‘We’re trying to weed out the foul trouble. I’m trying to do that, too.’



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