Orange big men ready for Sycamores

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - They’re on back-to-back pages in the Syracuse media guide. On their tiptoes, they would be more than 14 feet tall together. And their armspans seemingly could extend across the entire baseline.

As Syracuse (26-7) prepares for its NCAA tournament opener against Missouri Valley Conference champion Indiana State (20-13) on Friday, coach Jim Boeheim is counting on his two freshmen centers _ the imposing 7-foot Fab Melo and wiry 6-10 Baye Moussa Keita _ to ease the load in the middle of the Orange’s signature 2-3 zone defense.

Be big on the big stage.

“Having those two big guys is huge,” junior guard Scoop Jardine said. “For Baye and Fab to play well is going to help us because we need them bad. We need both of our big men.”

A year ago, Boeheim’s hopes of reaching a fourth Final Four vanished when bruising center Arinze Onuaku crashed to the Madison Square Garden floor with a career-ending knee injury during a loss to Georgetown in the Big East tournament.

A No. 1 seed in the 2010 NCAA tournament, Syracuse was forced to play power forward Rick Jackson and raw freshman DaShonte Riley at center.

The Orange made it past Vermont and Gonzaga, then bowed to Butler in the round of 16 as Jackson struggled to carry so much of the extra load that deep in the season.

The Orange, seeded third this year in the East, are ready to make good on the team’s season-long theme of “Unfinished business.”

Jackson, whose offseason training and revised diet transformed his body and stamina, leads the way with 17 double-doubles and is averaging a team-high 35.4 minutes. He expects plenty of help from the 245-pound Melo and 213-pound Keita, who have combined to average 25 minutes.

“Right now they’re playing good,” Jackson said. “Fab really came alive in the Big East tournament. If he’s playing like that, I think we’ll go far. He’s getting his confidence and Baye did a great job all year for us. I think with those two big guys, just keep rotating them and we’ll be fine.”

Indiana State coach Greg Lansing, whose Sycamores have won five in a row, already has cast a wary eye.

“They’ve got some guys who can cover some ground,” said Lansing, in his first season at Indiana State. “We haven’t seen a lot of zone. It can paralyze you. You can’t just stand around. When you get an open look, it’s not going to be there long.”

Boeheim tabbed Melo, a McDonald’s All-American at Sagemont High School in Florida and preseason Big East rookie of the year, as his starter even though Keita had impressed more in preseason practice.

But Melo, who started playing basketball only five years ago after he literally outgrew soccer, struggled mightily with the pace of the college game, and Boeheim, more often than not, made the Brazilian his prized pupil on the bench.

“When he can get there, he can make plays,” Boeheim said at midseason. “But he cannot get there at the pace that these games are played at.”

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