The Education of Fab Melo continues

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- He couldn't imagine why he would need gloves.

Yes, he understood it snowed in Syracuse. But gloves?

How cold could it get?

"I have gloves now," Fab Melo said with a smile. "A few pair."

Purchasing proper winter attire is just part of what could officially be called The Education of Fab Melo, an audacious undertaking that involves taking a kid who grew up south of the equator and transplanting him into the land of lake-effect snow, plopping a Portuguese-speaking teenager into an American college, and turning a player with a little more than two years of basketball experience into a Big East big man.

It is not easy being Fab anywhere.

It's incredibly hard being Melo in Syracuse.

So when the Brazilian blessed with a 7-foot frame and musical name spent his first year looking more Fab(ricated) than Fab(ulous), let's just say the learning curve loomed incredibly steep.

Fast-forward one year more and 30 pounds less and Melo's game is finally starting to live up to his name.

There are plenty of reasons for Syracuse's ascension to the top spot in the rankings. Jim Boeheim is blessed with a treasure trove of talent that a hoarder would envy, along with solid experience and smart defense.

But if one question dogged the Orange in the preseason, it was how they would handle the graduation of Rick Jackson, the steady big man who served as offensive menace and as anchor in the zone.

The answer has come in an unexpected way: The Transformation of Fab Melo.

In 13 games, the sophomore already has more points (83 to 77), rebounds (70 to 64) and blocks (31 to 25) than he did in 33 games a season ago.

"Last year, I think I was a little afraid of everything," Melo said. "I knew it would be hard, but I don't think I realized how hard it would be. Now it's all just a lot easier."

He laughs a lot -- that's the first thing you notice about Melo. He's almost a chronic giggler, peppering every sentence with a smile and shrug of the shoulders.

So you naturally think he's just a big goof, a happy-go-lucky kid handed the keys to the American dream.

Except nothing really has been handed to Melo.

His father died when he was an infant, and he grew up in tough economic straits in Juiz de Fora, a city in southern Brazil.

"He's a resilient kid," said Melo's high school coach, Adam Ross. "He's been through more in 20 years than most elderly people have in a lifetime. He's really had to persevere."

Athletic outlets in Brazil tend to run in one direction -- toward the soccer field, where star players become one-name national treasures. Think Pele, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho. Melo figured that was his destiny, too, until genetics changed his course.

He grew too tall for the wildly popular sport, and, by the ninth grade, his growing feet (size 18) were planted firmly on the basketball court. Named to the under-17 national team, he showed enough flashes despite his lack of experience that his mom, Regina Paulino, decided he would be better served at an American high school.

Melo had exactly one relative in the United States -- a cousin who lived in Miami -- so he concentrated his search there, eventually opting to enroll at Sagemont in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a 15-mile ride from Miami.

It is not easy to hide when you're 7 feet tall, so Melo didn't exactly arrive quietly in the States. People noticed the figurative and literal big man on campus even though Florida's international transfer rules prohibited Melo from playing his junior year.

It was all more than a little overwhelming for a kid who was basically on his own, in a country where he could barely grasp the language. Melo initially enrolled in a course to learn English but quickly ditched it, opting instead to use television as his language tool of choice.

"The class, it doesn't work," he said. "It doesn't teach you how to really speak or how people really speak. I basically had to forget about Portuguese and learn to speak and think in English."

If only basketball were so easy to pick up.

Melo's senior season averages -- 15 points and 11 rebounds -- were nice but, his high school coach admits, a bit misleading. He wasn't in great shape (Melo's weight fluctuated from 245 when he first arrived at Sagemont to as high as 281), and he had only raw basketball skills. But Melo was so much bigger and stronger than everyone else that it still was easy for him to dominate.

Too easy in some ways.

Although people who watched Melo play could spot his shortcomings, it's just too impossible to overlook some things -- like 7 feet and all those points and rebounds.

It's called upside, basketball code for potential. The trouble with upside: It's about what a player can be as opposed to what he is right now.

Melo was named a McDonald's All-American and a Parade All-American, ranked 14th overall by ESPN Recruiting, and arrived at Syracuse as the Big East preseason rookie of the year.

"We basically set him up for failure," Ross said. "There was so much hype, so many expectations. He didn't ask for any of that. He'd barely played. He started in the ninth grade. People here, they start when they're 4, but anything short of 15 points and 10 rebounds for his freshman season was going to be a failure. And so he failed."

In 33 games as a freshman, Melo failed to score a point 15 times. Against Michigan, he joined Club Trillion, logging four minutes and nothing else in the box score.

Melo's season game log is a statistical disaster of the highest order, a numerical representation of a player's confidence dissolving.

"He just hadn't played enough to know the game, and he wasn't in the kind of shape you needed to be in," Boeheim said. "His ability was there, but he couldn't get up and down the court. He couldn't get in position to make plays. He worked hard, but he was just too far behind."

Boeheim knew from the beginning that that would be the case. Big guys, he said, always take longer to develop, and that's in the best of circumstances. Melo came from the most extenuating of circumstances, with little basketball education to fall back on.

Yet Melo nonetheless was caught in the crosshairs of today's basketball, where the inability to immediately live up to the hype is written off as abject failure.

A message board punching bag, Melo wasn't a player who needed work. He was a bust, pure and simple.

"People here, they expect so much of you," Melo said. "They want to know why I'm not playing well. There's so much attention."

The attention went from bad to worse in the offseason when Melo was arraigned on a fourth-degree criminal mischief charge after a physical altercation with his girlfriend. Melo was accused of slamming her computer against a wall and breaking the turn signal controller in her car. (Last month, a judge said he would clear Melo's record if he stayed out of trouble for one year. Melo has declined comment on the incident.)

Even fans who at least found Melo affable and likable questioned his worth to the team.

There are, of course, two ways to go when you near the bottom -- further down or up.

So Melo took his first step up that steep learning curve. He spent part of the summer with the Brazilian national team -- playing in the World University Games -- and the rest in the weight room.

The basketball skills, he realized, would take time to develop. His weight he could attack immediately.

Melo committed to running daily and changed his diet wholesale, swapping out any and all fatty foods and all meals after 9 p.m.

"You wake up in the middle of the night starving," he said.

Now 30 pounds lighter, Melo sees his hunger pangs paying off. He finally can get up and down the court, and his stats are proving it.

In 13 games, there is nary an oh-fer night in sight, and Melo has been a difference-maker in some of the Orange's biggest games. He had 9 points and 5 boards against top-10 Florida and 9 rebounds in the NIT Season Tip-Off final against Stanford.

And, his coach says, he's only beginning.

"He's one of the big guys that, in the old days, would take about four years and then they'd play in the NBA," Boeheim said. "In today's world, big kids don't stick around long enough to get to that point. I don't think he's 20 percent of where he'll be someday."

The first time Fab Melo saw snow, he was in high school, playing in a tournament in Springfield, Mo. There wasn't much of it, just a little dusting, but enough that the Brazilian kid had fun pelting his coach with snowballs before hightailing it home to sunny South Florida.

Then he moved to Syracuse, where the temperature hovers between 16 and 40 in the month of January and the snowfall often is measured by the foot, not the inch.

"I actually liked the snow at first," Melo said. "Then it was like, 'OK, when is this going to end?'"

March, usually.

Melo thought he came prepared. He packed sweaters and coats, loaded up on parkas and hats.

He just didn't buy gloves.

"I was like, 'Why? What do you need them for?'" he said. "Then I went outside. I thought I came prepared, but I realized I had a lot to learn."

He was talking about his sartorial savvy.

He could have been talking about his basketball know-how.

The good news: The Education of Fab Melo continues, in the snow and on the court.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.