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Syracuse Basketball: The Case for Using Tyler Roberson at Center

With yesterday's news that Moustapha Diagne won't attend Syracuse this year, a thin Orange frontcourt got even thinner. It might be worth experimenting with Tyler Roberson at center.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to Game 4 of the 2015 NBA Finals, with his Golden State Warriors trailing the series 2-1, head coach Steve Kerr decided to bench center Andrew Bogut and shift forward Draymond Green to center. With Green at center and Bogut on the pine, the Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 103-82. Golden State would also win Games 5 and 6, with Green at center, Bogut benched and backup center Festus Ezeli playing only sparingly.

Kerr played small-ball, and it paid off. Without Bogut and Ezeli around to clog the lane, the Warriors spread the floor and finally started hitting shots, which they struggled to do in Game 2 and in most of Game 3, the only games they lost in the series.

It's a strategy that has revolutionized the NBA, diminishing the value of a traditional center. Small lineups have become more popular in the college game, too; Notre Dame, for example, used lineups last season consisting of four guards and either the 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson or the 6-foot-8 V.J. Beachem.

And in 2015-16, it might be time for Syracuse to try something similar by moving the 6-foot-8 Tyler Roberson to center for spurts, even if it means sacrificing some rim protection. It's at least worth considering after yesterday's news that Moustapha Diagne will enroll at a two-year college this fall rather than at SU.

Without Diagne, the Orange has very little depth at center. DaJuan Coleman, barring a setback, will start at the position. But having been plagued by knee injuries, he can't realistically be expected to return and play the same type of minutes as Syracuse's other starters.

When Coleman sits, conventional wisdom says SU should turn to Chinonso Obokoh, the only other true center on the roster eligible to play this season. But Obokoh badly struggled last season, and it'd be naive to think he's going to be a great deal better in 2015-16.

So the Orange's best option might be to not use Obokoh at all. That means going small when Coleman is on the bench. And while head coach Jim Boeheim didn't have the personnel last season to experiment with small-ball lineups, he does this season.

With Malachi Richardson now in the fold, Syracuse has four guards that will each (probably) be deserving of significant minutes. By sliding Roberson to center, Boeheim could use a four-guard lineup featuring Richardson, Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije and Kaleb Joseph. That lineup would also put arguably the Orange's best four players -- Cooney, Gbinije, Richardson and Roberson -- all on the court together. Assuming Joseph gets the bulk of the minutes at point guard, that won't often be possible otherwise.

More importantly, the small lineup would elicit a faster pace and much better spacing, meaning there would be plenty of opportunities for 3-pointers. Cooney, Gbinije and Richardson are all real threats from 3. Even Joseph hits an occasional 3. And if Roberson has added any semblance of a jump shot, Syracuse could space the floor even more and get even better looks at jumpers.

It would be a mismatch hell for opposing defenses. Not many power forwards are going to be able to stick with Gbinije, and Roberson would be a mismatch himself for a lot of centers.

The increased floor spacing and pace do, of course, come at a cost. Going small means you're usually going to sacrifice rebounding and rim protection.

Fortunately for SU, it might be able to get by in the rebounding department. Roberson is already one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's best rebounders, Gbinije is solid on the boards and Richardson should rebound very well for his position.

It's impossible, however, to argue that a small lineup wouldn't diminish the Orange's rim protection. And without a true center, the 2-3 zone as Syracuse normally plays it would falter. To play to the strengths of a smaller and quicker lineup, SU would need to ramp up the pace by playing aggressively and trapping more frequently than it typically does.

If that sounds taxing on players, it's because it would be. This isn't a proposal for SU to play full games with small lineups. The Orange doesn't have the depth for that.

But unless Coleman's knees are suddenly better than new come November, Syracuse has little reason not to at least experiment with small-ball.