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Marek Dolezaj injury makes Syracuse’s Italy trip a center competition

There’ll be pasta, but no pizza for Syracuse in Italy. With Marek Dolezaj out, there’ll be opportunity for Syracuse’s young bigs.

Syracuse basketball v TCU Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Syracuse Orange coach Jim Boeheim spoke unconcerned to at the beginning of July, less than two months before his team’s trip to Italy. It was, of course, less than two months before a trip to Italy — a flight delay due to snow in August couldn’t ruin that anticipation.

Neither could Marek Dolezaj breaking his finger. Boeheim announced the injury on July 3. He said Dolezaj would no longer play in the Slovakian national team’s qualifying games. The four-week prognosis then would’ve allowed the forward to play for the Orange in Italy. Now he will not. The team indicated he will still make the trip.

“If he can’t, that’s all right,” Boeheim said at the time. “We know what he can do. It will give the other guys more opportunities.”

Those will funnel to Bourama Sidibe, John Bol Ajak, Jesse Edwards and Robert Braswell. The duo of freshman and Syracuse’s bench bigs will vie to claim a starting opportunity in Dolezaj’s absence. While Dolezaj holds the most starting experience on the team, Boeheim previously said he’ll only allow him to play there until he’s “blown away.”

That apparently happened when Zion Williamson lowered his shoulder and mowed Dolezaj on a charge take. Paschal Chukwu played the game of his career in that Duke upset. He started again after Dolezaj’s six-game stretch where SU went 5-1.

Dolezaj broke his middle finger while playing in Slovakia last month, per SU.

Despite fans belaboring over Chukwu’s awkwardness inside and inconsistency, he became a mainstay — starting 65 of the 70 games he appeared during the last two seasons. He posted a +10.5 box plus-minus to lead Syracuse each of the last seasons. The Orange outscored opponents by 28 points per 100 possessions in his 2017-18 minutes, then by 33 last year. Chukwu wasn’t perfect, but he was 7’2”.

Dolezaj gives five inches and more devastatingly over 40 pounds to Chukwu. Though he held his own at center, and occasionally alongside Sidibe, to increase his shooting percentages, assist rate and net rating in fewer minutes.

Sidibe holds the tenure easy to forget in Dolezaj’s absence. Like Marek, he aspires to start, and Rothstein predicted (informed or not) Syracuse won’t choose one.

Before Chukwu ran away with the starting job, Sidibe appeared the offensively equipped alternate early in 2017-18. He averaged 4.2 points and 4.0 rebounds in short minutes and posted an 18 point, 16 rebound game against Pittsburgh to cap January. Then tendinitis slowed him, surgery failed to rejuvenate him and it became easy to forget he was on the team last season.

He said explosion remained a difficulty. Fouling, positioning and ball control emerged as issues too. Boeheim prefers veterans, but ones that can play. Sidibe’s status may be the most important development to watch in Italy.

The team will rely heavily on youth if his regression continues. Particularly one of two players who have played basketball competitively for less than five years. Ajak arrived in the US and picked up basketball at 15 years old. Edwards ramped up his training at 16. Their ascent, shooting ability and physical tools carry promise, but the leap to ACC play will test their instincts and speed.

Part of the Orange’s road to rebuilding their front court includes replacing Oshae Brissett. His defensive dominance at the four last season anchored the defense as much as Chukwu, especially as SU’s reliable rebounder.

Robert Braswell could factor into replacing some those minutes. He only played significantly at NC State on the wing, flashing three steals with a precise knack for rotating in the zone. That will earn him points, though if wings like Quincy Guerrier rebound better, they’ll be needed more.

Guerrier and a center likely combine in a system system reflecting what Brissett paired with Dolezaj and Chukwu to accomplish in 2019. Scouts regard Guerrier as a defensively-sound prospect with above-the-rim athleticism and 6’7” height to compete there.

The zone’s difficulty, along with strained personnel on the boards, made Syracuse’s Italy tune-up fall at a critical time. Without Dolezaj, it could signal how grueling the non-conference slate will become as SU undergoes its largest center turnover since Fab Melo’s 2012 suspension.