Coaches love to say basketball often happens between the plays being run on the court. That’s where, the clichéd saying goes, games can be won and they can be lost.
A tipped rebound goes careening off out-stretched hands, rocketing toward the baseline under one of the baskets.
An errant pass between teammates is tipped and smacked to the ground, inciting an old school mini-WWF battle royal near center court.
In 2016-17, the Syracuse Orange never seemed to come up on the right side of those situations. Repeatedly losing out. The out-of-control rebound typically wound up out of bounds. Loose-ball scrums usually ended with the other team scoring
All of that might not be backed up by some next-level, next-generation analysis. I don't have any actual numbers to go by; it was just a gut-feeling that the Orange always lost out on 50-50 balls last season. SU's players dove and fought and battled, it just seemed like something, maybe even luck, was against them.
<Both teams fight for the ball>
<Other team gets it>
This season, though still early, it seems like the loose-ball gods have decided to bless Jim Boeheim's team. In those types of situations, it's becoming expected Syracuse will somehow, someway come up with the basketball. Be it flying toward the bleachers, or submerged under bodies, the odds of the Orange gaining or retaining possession seem to be substantially higher now.
And a big reason that paradigm has shifted has to do with the play of Marek Dolezaj.
A freshman from Slovakia, he kind of just showed up over the summer, this skinny kid with a "pffft...yeah, okay" listed weight of 180 pounds. And all he has done is quickly become Boeheim's ace in the hole.
Like a five-tool baseball player who can be shifted around the diamond and still help the team, Dolezaj has a jack-of-all-trades trait. He’s a
Swiss Slovakian Army Knife. Which is why Boeheim has played him just about everywhere on the court, including as backup center for when Paschal Chukwu picks up foul trouble (usually when he steps off the bus before tip off) or for replacing the injured Bourama Sidibe.
Crazy on a number of levels; Syracuse having the 6-foot-9 skinny kid, who could fit the role of tall high-schooler, filling the role for two guys with a combined height of about 14 feet. That's like going from fighting Goliath to a dry and happy gremlin.
The crazier part to it all is that having Dolezaj play center simply works. It might not be a good idea come the meat of the ACC schedule. But for November and December's purposes, the move makes sense. That's because, in short order, it's become clear Dolezaj deserves to be on the court.
Fairly high praise, I know, especially for a player who might not have even seen the court had Boeheim’s roster not been so depleted by early departures and NCAA sanctions. For someone who has a career-high of just 10 points. One who has only made 21 field goals in total on the year? Hell, he's only averaging about 24 minutes per game.
That's all for the quantifiable, something a lot Dolezaj's game is not. At least not right now. The freshman, like most, has a lot of work to do on his game and a lot of muscle to build on his frame.
For now, his game is instead that of the heart and hustle. The knack to be where needed, when needed. What the talking heads love to call a "high basketball IQ." He’s not the typical “shoot from anywhere, get to the rim at any time” European, ala Dirk Nowitzki or Kristaps Porzingis, with size, speed and shoot skill. Nope. He’s instead changing the loose-ball, potential-turnover moments into Syracuse's having possession.
A coach's dream in many ways.
Obviously, the other Orange men appear to be busting their tails for every possession. Syracuse overall seems to have a sense of urgency to it this season, something maybe a little lacking last year.
Not to mention, Tyus Battle is the absolute key to victory for the Orange. SU needs his ability to score and take games over. Then there's Oshae Brissett, who can put points up and, at the same time, is starting to free up Battle for his late-game heroics. Also, quietly, Frank Howard is growing into a capable and very necessary point guard.
But for a team lacking depth and struggling to score, it needs that guy willing to do the dirty work.
And so far, it appears to have him.
Missed shots and Dolezaj is probably there poking, prodding, tipping and ultimately trapping the ball. Brouhaha for the basketball? Dolezaj's a Jimmy Snuka off the top rope away from corralling the ball. If there were dirt to be kicked up on the Carrier Dome court, Dolezaj's jersey would likely be the dirtiest.
Sure, he's not going to lead Syracuse in scoring any time soon. In fact, he's unlikely to be the focal point of any offensive set. But just the same, Dolezaj's game is certainly worth watching, just ask Coach Boeheim.