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Biggest Syracuse Orange basketball questions at media day

NunesMagician’s 2019-20 live basketball coverage begins from the Melo Center this afternoon. Here are the pressing questions entering the season.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Media Day Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

News finally moved last week. With Pay to Play sparking Jim Boeheim’s musings on the college game at ACC Media Day, the groggy leftover Syracuse Orange men’s basketball takeaways from Italy dissipated.

Tomorrow, the team hosts its media day and Orange vs. White scrimmage. Syracuse basketball is finally back.

James Szuba returns this season to lead many of our road-game coverages. Austin Lamb joins us from Ithaca to bolster our game-day overview. I will contribute reports from the Carrier Dome again, along with videos and our Syracuse Basketball Podcast. David Stone is here to assist with his takes and program news. John’s participating... once he’s done rage-tweeting through another Syracuse football season.

Boeheim predicted issues defensively. His man-to-man teases defined a summer of massive turnover. Four starters departed after two years with the same core rotation players.

Elijah Hughes assumes the lead scoring role after Boeheim saw him as the fourth option to begin last year. Jalen Carey will play point guard after losing his spot in the regular rotation. Bourama Sidibe takes over at center after sporadically playing these past few seasons. Marek Dolezaj can seemingly play anywhere.

As Boeheim mentioned at ACC media day, there is experience here. Albeit stained with inconsistency. Two mobile freshmen forwards, a pair of sharpshooting recruits and Buddy Boeheim round out one of the youngest Orange teams in recent memory.

It figures to be one that stretches the image of how a Boeheim-led team can play. They’re deep, the three-pointer appears a strength and Quincy Guerrier drew an Oshae Brissett comparison from Boeheim in Charlotte.

If not successful, a high-powered Syracuse offense could surpass the previous attempt in 2016-17. That run was fun, even without a NCAA berth.

The teams without expectations tended to succeed while that “best team in recently memory” group faltered. This one could remain together for the next few seasons. Making this season crucial.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the biggest questions at media day...

  1. What will a Hughes-led offense look like?

Boeheim’s offenses leaned on great facilitating point guards periodically during this past decade. With Tyler Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams, the center of the offense also managed the distribution.

That changed during the Tyus Battle era. Frank Howard brought the ball up and Battle found the rock in the flow of the sets. Battle and him swapped duties regularly, but Howard largely ran the offense until his senior-year struggles.

A similar dynamic emerges between Carey and Hughes. Hughes trailed only Battle in scoring last year, but thrived in an off-ball role. He cut on the baseline, caught drive-and-kick passes to convert threes and only occasionally drove.

Hughes can dribble and create for himself, with an effective step-back jumper. It’s harder to forecast what his regular minutes on the ball will look like, and where those will leave Carey. Boeheim said that Hughes will command significant ball time.

Carey can regularly score on the dribble. His lack of a pull-up shot from three could minimize his off-ball effectiveness. Syracuse boasts plenty of catch-and-shoot guards though, so spacey lineups could be where Hughes mans that role. The difference here likely will stem from their vision.

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Washington at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

2. What is the plan behind Sidibe?

Sidibe throttled the competition in Italy. At his best, he’s a double-double threat with the burst and hands to score in the pick-and-roll. That potential largely disappeared through Paschal Chukwu’s emergence and Sidibe’s knee injury.

Nobody knows what Sidibe will look like against real competition this year. We will likely hear he’s healthy and ready to go. Then we’ll find out if tendinitis of talent minimized his effectiveness. Even if he succeeds, Boeheim will likely transition to other lineups that can space the floor. The quick hook as some call it.

Where does that leave the center position?

Boeheim ruled Dolezaj out of center minutes this year. That leaves Jesse Edwards, a true seven-footer who was not in full shape in Italy. John Bol Ajak joins Syracuse as a shorter face-up five. He did not play in Italy due to visa issues.

The position will either raise pleasant surprises, or further undermine Syracuse’s ability to play a successful 2-3 zone. Sidibe’s best attribute remains his rim protection, but beyond him it’s unclear how well the new cast can break out to the deeper three-point line, rotate and battle inside.

NCAA Basketball: St. Bonaventure at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

3. Where does Howard Washington fit?

Syracuse features multiple play-making guards, Dolezaj can handle the rock and Hughes projects to prominently lead the offense for stretches. As Carey started Syracuse’s games in Italy, it placed Washington’s role into question.

Washington suffered a stroke early last season after an ACL tear ended his freshman campaign. His 2016-17 non-conference minutes revealed a game that could have dramatically changed two years later.

The first indication of that arrived with two deep bombs in the Oxygen exhibition. Washington shot 2-for-12 in his first 18 games with the Orange combined. Shooting could be currency on this roster. So could stability, and Washington flashed a steady handle despite high turnover numbers in a small sample as a freshman.

Carey dominated him for point guard minutes in Italy, but Washington provides an intriguing safety valve for Boeheim. He’s been around the program and practices for three seasons now and, despite his low number of games played, likely understands what Boeheim wants more than anyone else.

No numbers tell a complete tale of what Washington is capable of, so he enters the season as the sneaky veteran who could become one of the more important players. He nearly lost his basketball career and life last fall, so it’d be an incredible story to see him propel to prominence here.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Media Day Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

4. What is the next step for Dolezaj?

Boeheim contends that Dolezaj should not play center. While he handled the position, more minutes there did have an intriguing impact on his stats.

He scored fewer points, grabbed less rebounds and assists than he did during his freshman year. Some of that stemmed from the prominence of Brissett, Chukwu and Hughes in front of him. Though the physicality of the interior visibly knocked him around.

We all remember the devastating Zion Williamson hit. It wasn’t the only time Dolezaj rose slowly after bone hit hardwood.

Even with extra pounds packed on and workouts no longer shedding weight, Syracuse may have the brawn inside to keep him on the wing. Does that mean he starts? Or will he continue to rotate in with the second unit? Guerrier and him occupy a similar position, with a tough tradeoff for Boeheim to determine.

Both can shoot but neither excels from three to the degree that it separates them. Guerrier will likely score and rebound at higher rates. Dolezaj’s dives for loose balls, charge takes and excellent positioning elevate the team in his minutes.

Syracuse outscored its opponents by 16.2 points per 100 possessions with him in, largely sharing the floor with the bench. Only Chukwu surpassed that figure.

Dolezaj’s transition to the states and impact on SU remains astounding after his low-key recruitment. He represented Syracuse in Charlotte alongside Hughes and reflected how he never imagined speaking for the team after knowing little English in 2017.

Pace-and-space and forward minutes could transform his impact, as it’s not long ago he provided double-figure scoring during the Orange’s 2018 run.