PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Thursday's biggest story was decided long before anyone showed up to unlock the CONSOL Energy Center, and by the time Jim Boeheim led his Syracuse team into the building, things had only intensified.
The Orange began practice without academically ineligible All-Big East center Fab Melo while Boeheim was peppered with questions about the situation just yards away. The site's most noteworthy player may have been missing, but buzz surrounding his absence certainly was not.
Boeheim said that he learned of Melo's academic ineligibility, which disqualified him from the entire NCAA Tournament, on Tuesday but bluntly refused to elaborate on the situation's details. Instead, he used a sarcastic grin to cast aside concerns over his missing star. It made him the only person in the building not wanting to discuss the day's hottest topic.
Funny how that works, isn't it?
"I'm just dealing with the team and what we're doing," Boeheim said. "I'm not going to comment about anything else. We'll write about it someday, all right?"
But that didn't stop the questions from being posed to everybody else. Southern Miss head coach Larry Eustachy claimed to not know who Melo was, saying he elects to watch Law and Order over college basketball. And when it came time to ask Kansas State coaches and players about the situation, center Jordan Henriquez was the interview subject of choice.
"I found out on the plane," said Henriquez,. who later avoided a question on what effect Melo's absence might have on a potential meeting between Syracuse and K-State. "It was huge. Everybody was talking about it. Everyone talks about how he's a pro, so I wanted to match up with him.
"He's important to that team. We all make mistakes, we just have to learn from them."
Syracuse (31-2) is 2-1 without Melo this season, but clearly lacked his presence in this middle of the Orange's zone defense.
It didn't take long for K-State's Will Spradling to reach out to Southern Miss guard Neil Watson when it was announced that the Wildcats and Golden Eagles would open the NCAA Tournament against each other.
"It was probably 2.5 minutes after the announcement, and I already had a text from Will," Watson said on Wednesday. "I called him after that and we talked about it. But no trash talk.. We've never really been like that."
Spradling and Watson's friendship started on the Kansas City AAU circuit, where Spradling's father coached them both. The relationship isn't one of those basketball-only inventions that tend to get exaggerated when acquaintances become opponents, though.
"I spent a lot of time around his house," Watson said. "I actually went to the lake with him and his family. We've spent a lot of time together since I was 16 or 17."
Golden Eagle senior Darnell Dodson also has ties to the Wildcats. The Washington D.C. product played alongside both Rodney McGruder and Jamar Samuels in high school and has been assigned the task of guarding Samuels, a former D.C. Assault teammate, when K-State and Southern Miss collide on Thursday.
"I'll probably have to guard him some," Dodson said. "We've always been on the same side, so this is a new experience. I'll just have to guard him and not think about it. There's a first time for everything."
EUSTACHY ENJOYING DIFFERENT FEEL
Southern Miss head coach Larry Eustachy's battle with alcoholism has never been short on publicity. The Golden Eagle's head coach was fired from Iowa State, which he guided to a pair of Big 12 Championships, in 2003 for incidents involving alcohol abuse on team road trips. Now back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since being dismissed as the Cyclone's coach, even familiar things seem foreign.
"They say when you start drinking you stop maturing," the 56-year old Eustachy said on Wednesday. "I had my first drink at 17. So basically at the (past NCAA) tournaments I was a 17-year old coming to tournaments."
Eustachy, this year's Conference USA Gene Bartow Coach of the Year, was named Big 12 Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year by the AP during his time at Iowa State. He also won the Big West Coach of the Year Award while coaching Utah State in 1995.
He 402-257 all-time as a head coach.
GOLDEN EAGLES ACT AS MIRROR FOR MARTIN
Much of the talk from Kansas State's locker room on Wednesday dealt with how similar Southern Miss, the team against which it will open NCAA Tournament play, is to the Wildcats.
Both teams' added emphasis on offensive rebounding and defense were the main talking points, but in the mind of K-State coach Frank Martin the parallels run deeper than that.
"You hear a lot of folks say we're the hardest playing team in America, well, Larry's teams were the hardest playing teams when he was at Iowa State," he said. "That's only because they were on television all the time. You watch his team play now, and they play just as hard."
DIRESPECT CARD IN PLAY
Turns out, K-State doesn't have the market cornered on using public perception as motivation. Especially not this week. On Wednesday, Members of ninth-seeded Southern Miss were the ones reciting basketball's common no-respect speech.
"We know we're the underdog against Kansas State," forward Maurice Bolden said. "But all season long people have been doubting us and giving us a hard time. I think that's made us stronger and prepared us for tomorrow."