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The best version of Bourama Sidibe arrived for Syracuse against Pittsburgh

With five steals and four blocks, Bourama Sidibe swung enough possessions on defense to keep Pittsburgh from drawing close. His offense helped ease the burden of Buddy Boeheim’s loss for the second time in two weeks.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Boeheim wrapped this week essentially conceding his team’s lost season at the center position. He accepted fault for not recruiting stronger interior talent. After the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team’s debilitating loss to Louisville, he maintained SU cannot be a team that runs offense through post touches.

“We’re doing what we can to win the games,” Boeheim said then. “That’s what we’re doing And we’re going to do that every game, period.”

Syracuse found a new path to victory anyway against the Pittsburgh Panthers on Wednesday — the smoothest and most nonchalant win against legitimate competition this year. While Buddy Boeheim left injured, Brycen Goodine dished four assists with no turnovers and Bourama Sidibe became the center of the offense during some possessions.

Prior to Wednesday, Sidibe fouled out of nine games and came within one of doing so in every Syracuse game dating back to Dec. 3. The sight of him wrapping his arms around an opponent, then putting them straight up as the whistle sounds became as expected as him leaping over their backs chasing rebounds.

Still, Sidibe has carved out a steady role on offense that expanded as the Orange looked for him more often against Pitt. SU doesn’t need much more than Elijah Hughes, Joseph Girard III and Boeheim to provide on that end, but when they’ve gone inside, Sidibe has hit 70% of his shots. He averages over 1.0 point per possession when the Orange utilize him in the half court.

Wednesday recalled memories of his 18-point, 16-rebound performance at Pittsburgh in 2018. The then-freshman Sidibe looked early on like the offensive answer to Paschal Chukwu’s defense. With good hands, strong finishes and solid rolls he looked early on that year like a prospect that could grow into a steady offensive weapon and rebounder for SU.

“He should probably come to Pittsburgh,” Boeheim said after Sidibe’s 13 points and 10 rebounds on Wednesday. “It’s the only place he plays like that.”

As Boeheim alludes to, that consistency never happened. Sidibe developed tendinitis that derailed that season and hurt his explosiveness into his sophomore season. He never challenged Chukwu for minutes, and when the center position opened for him this season, it has closed via quick hooks from Boeheim. Against Louisville, he hit the bench less than 90 seconds into the game.

At his worst, Boeheim says that Sidibe lacks the movement they need from him. He expects him to foul, but he needs to eliminate the uncalled for ones. The injury excuse is long in the past, eliminating that narrative that lasted late into last season. Everyone seemed reserved that Sidibe’s development peaked and now SU has to deal with whatever they can get from him.

Everyone except for Marek Dolezaj. As Sidibe became an afterthought through Syracuse’s highs and lows this month, Dolezaj still looked for him on high-low passes and in transition. Before this week, Dolezaj had fed three of his last six baskets. Elsewhere, he carved out offense on put-backs, where he’s shooting 21-of-28 (92nd percentile). Sidibe’s transition runs have yielded 12-of-13 shooting. When Hughes found him there early, it opened his best game all season.

SU’s perimeter players haven’t looked for him for much else. They’d hoped he would’ve given them the rim protection that shined in his recruiting. That returned, if only for an instant, with five steals and four blocks that Boeheim noted would’ve otherwise been points. In a 22-point win, those nine possessions kept the game from becoming close.

Sidibe scored only two points with five rebounds before fouling out of the Louisville loss, a game that looked like it could finally knock Syracuse off the rails. As frustrated as he was after, and has been all season, he looked forward, “this game is over with,” and found his best play a week later.

“We need him to be better in the middle,” Boeheim said. If only for an instant, in a favorable matchup, Sidibe was. And with Buddy Boeheim scoreless for the second time this month (this time due to injury), the points helped too.