In early December, the Daily Orange suggested the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team play Oshae Brissett at center — to which coach Jim Boeheim responded (sarcastically) that he’d be better off playing Paschal Chukwu at the one. That was on December 8, after SU beat Georgetown to get to 7-2 on the year.
Two losses later, Boeheim ended up giving a different player, Marek Dolezaj a shot as the team’s starting five. Syracuse has been 4-0 since, including Wednesday’s 61-53 win over Clemson where the Slovakian sophomore scored a season-high 10 points on 3-for-5 shooting — and 2-for-4 from three. The new outside shot has been important addition for Dolezaj, and hopefully continues to grow as part of SU’s offensive game improves a bit.
Syracuse.com talked to Dolezaj, Boeheim and the rest of the team after last night’s game, and it ends up the center’s effort against Clemson’s Elijah Thomas was all part of the plan.
“That was big time,” Syracuse forward Elijah Hughes said. “We knew it was coming. (Thomas) tries to play bully ball. He tries to get his way down there.”
“We watched the film,” Tyus Battle said. “We knew he takes a pound dribble before he goes up.”
“We watched movie, or video, and he always went down,” Dolezaj said. “I tried to take a charge to slow him in the beginning. I think he was a little out of his game.”
As Chris Carlson gets into in that piece, removing Thomas from the game made it a whole lot easier for Syracuse to exploit the middle, and it showed in the box score. After shooting just three free throws in the first half, the Orange had 20 in the second. Part of that impact obviously comes from getting more space to operate. And SU was able to take advantage.
Credit goes to the staff on the film study around Thomas’s preferences, but the execution was all Dolezaj. Over the course of the season, he’s become adept at drawing fouls from the defensive end of the floor. You probably recall the key charge he took against the Hoyas to help set up Battle’s eventual game-winner.
That defensive presence has ended up being at parity (at worst) with what Chukwu was providing at worst — and better, at best, given Dolezaj’s greater ability to move around on defense. Our own Dylan Finer previously broke down the differences between Syracuse’s main options at center (Dolezaj, Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe), and at the time, it seemed like the defensive difference was negligible while Marek provided more offense. Given the recent run the team’s been on with hm starting and the increased offense coming out of the five now, it seems like the Orange has their starting lineup pretty set.
SU’s unbeaten streak with Dolezaj starting will get put to the test once again on Saturday against Georgia Tech, with a quick turnaround going down to Durham to face Duke on Monday right after. That road matchup will be the biggest test to-date for Dolezaj at center. But given his increased (and efficient) scoring output, great rebounding and smart defensive play of late, it’s worth giving him a shot to see if he can shut down the Blue Devils... and anyone else that crosses Syracuse’s path going forward.