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Syracuse faces a lineup balancing act in 2018-19

Last year’s lineup decisions weren’t difficult for a coach that’s called depth overrated. Now faced with possibly his deepest team ever due to a full starting lineup returning, that will change.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Syracuse vs Duke Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last season was weird.

Despite the Syracuse Orange’s roster being ravaged by injuries, that bug sidelined those playing on the end of the depth chart. Matthew Moyer’s ankle, Bourama Sidibe’s back and Howard Washington’s knee all giving out certainly did not help Jim Boeheim, but affirmed a held philosophy he coaches through. The Orange don’t play deep.

Five players hit the floor for Boeheim — maybe one or two others see minutes after — and in the case of last year two never leave the floor. The constant peppering of questions about Frank Howard and Tyus Battle leading the NCAA in minutes could have been answered looking at the injury report. Where else would he go?

One season later, there will be solutions to that predicament, making this year weird in its own right.

Darius Bazley isn’t in the fold — if you haven’t heard one million times — but SU added a substantial amount of offensive talent that will funnel to its bench. Freshman Jalen Carey provides bouncy finishing and craftiness given his ability to finish with ambidexterity. Buddy Boeheim shoots. Elijah Hughes’ past box scores aren’t flashy, but coach Boeheim dubbed him as good offensively as any Syracuse guard in recent years. Robert Braswell can shoot from NBA range, according to Ryan Blackwell.

That cast also includes Sidibe, who’s on his way to a full recovery, and Washington at some point. Everybody’s back in the starting lineup. Depth is not a problem on any basketball team, unless its coach thought it’s overrated. But who would think that?

There lies a dilemma.

Boeheim mentioned on a radio appearance this summer he doesn’t see any reason his starting five from a year ago — Howard, Battle, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj and Paschal Chuwku — can’t repeat their defensive brilliance that propelled the team to the Sweet 16. Their length, touted height (which increased) and holding Arizona State, TCU and Michigan State to 56 points or less in March will go down in ‘Cuse lore.

It’s easier to forget slogs of 30 percent shooting nights (14 of them), a 317th-ranked scoring offense, 7’1” Chukwu missing dunks and Boeheim summarizing the thought of every observer that year before the finale vs. Duke: “we just aren’t good on that end.”

Battle posted a 3.2 offensive box plus-minus and his production relegated to the rest of the lineup’s scoring statistics (a measure of points above average player per 100 possessions; nobody else exceeded 1.5). With the bar set that low, 15-footers later in the season from Dolezaj became thrilling and a modest 33.3 percent three-point stroke from Oshae Brissett earned him the title of best shooter on the team from his coach. Frank Howard’s 14.4 points per game saved the unit in a macro sense, but his 3.4 turnovers per game lurked and sunk the offense occasionally.

There’s a case the team’s O was the worst to ever reach a Sweet 16, and that’s no slight in that it raises the historic status of their defense. Chukwu ranked in the top five of NCAA defensive box plus-minus, Brissett was top six in defensive win shares and top 20 in defensive rebounds. Howard ranked top 20 in steals, and the team overcame its 66.6 points per game on offense by allowing 63.8 defensively (10th in the nation).

That continuity on defense transcended the routine March conversations of the 2-3 zone “gimmick.” The 2017-18 zone didn’t hide weak links on defense. Five incredible defenders empowered the zone into the most dangerous unit in the NCAA.

But they need to put the ball in the bucket, a feat that will force Boeheim to break up five players averaging over 27 minutes per game on the floor together (28 in conference play).

The past 10 Syracuse teams only featured seven or eight players averaging over 10 minutes per game. Boeheim spoke about going nine or 10 deep before 2016-17, but once conference play arrived that consolidated to seven once again (in part due to Chukwu’s season-ending injury). Five of his last six teams (excluding 2014-15) went seven deep in Big East/ACC games.

Chuwku and Sidibe’s interchangeable use brings 2019’s depth chart to six. Carey in the back court makes seven. Then Boeheim, Hughes and Braswell (assuming Washington needs more time to recover) ring in an unprecedented 10 rotation players. With nearly all the team’s projected floor spacing coming off the bench, and its strongest defensive unit struggling so mightily on offense, it creates Boeheim’s most interesting minutes crunch in over a decade.

Battle and Howard can sacrifice considerable floor time after a season where they both averaged entire games played, but since Battle projects to lead the team in scoring again he’ll likely play 36 to 38 MPG. The interesting discussion situates around Howard-Carey. Howard’s about two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Carey and chemistry at the top of the zone matters, but if Carey inserts efficient scoring and distribution that balance becomes difficult to weigh.

Hughes needs minutes too and those will need to come from Battle or Brissett, the starting unit’s steadiest offensive hands to begin with. If Boeheim embraces small ball, then Brissett could once again average 36-38 MPG by siphoning some of the 40 MPG from Chukwu/Sidibe or Dolezaj’s 28. Dolezaj played some center last year, but Boeheim largely avoided small ball unless necessary even when facing an offensive catastrophe.

Braswell’s minutes become difficult to find after all that. He’ll likely get chopped below the 10 MPG mark unless an injury calls him into action. Nevertheless, the availability of offensive weapons like him places pressure on Boeheim to field an effective offensive unit.

Last year it wasn’t even worth tracking lineup statistics since the same five guys always played together. In 2018-19, Boeheim can mathematically court 252 unique five-man combinations with a 10-man roster, 462 once Washington returns. Creativity will now count.