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Syracuse falls to 0-3 this season when losing the rebounding battle

Boards have been the deciding factor in every game this year.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Going into Tuesday night’s game against the North Carolina Tar Heels, we knew the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team had their work cut out for them on the boards. UNC was No. 2 in the country at 44.9 rebounds per game, and while Syracuse hasn’t looked terrible there (averaged 39.9 per), the team also has just two capable big men at the moment.

As we know now, Syracuse lost the game to UNC, 81-75. And they also lost the rebounding battle, 48-31; a result far more lopsided than you’d probably think given the final score. But that makes the Orange 0-3 now in games where they’ve been out-rebounded, and 7-0 in games where they’ve managed more boards.

Notably, SU’s rebounding deficits (where applicable) have all been pretty large. Along with the 17-board disadvantage vs. UNC, the Orange were out-rebounded by 16 against Rutgers (42 to 26) and 16 again vs. Pitt (49-33). But it’s not as if Syracuse has been a force on the boards in all of the games they’ve won, either.

Syracuse only bested Bryant by two (47-45), Northeastern by one (37-36) and Buffalo by three (46-43). In a 30-point win against Niagara, SU nabbed 51 boards, which helps push the average up a bit. In reality, this is a team that hasn’t done a ton rebounding the basketball, save for the exploits of Quincy Guerrier, Alan Griffin and sometimes Marek Dolezaj.

NCAA Basketball: Georgetown at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Because while we can bemoan the lack of Bourama Sidibe in the lineup (and it certainly sounds like he’s out for a bit longer, according to Jim Boeheim), the rebounding issues in this game and others can potentially be traced to how the team uses Marek Dolezaj on offense at times, and how that would take him away from the glass on that end.

Though Syracuse is 7-0 in games where they’ve collected more rebounds, that’s not necessarily the case on the offensive end. SU has had fewer offensive boards than their opponent five separate times, and part of that certainly comes from when Dolezaj has to operate as more of a ball-handler on the wing, who distributes from there (instead of doing so from inside).

And that’s not to put everything on Dolezaj either, of course. With an offense that frequently operates on the perimeter in general, there are fewer players inside to grab boards. Griffin’s abilities (7.3 per game heading into Tuesday) have bailed Syracuse out at various points, and they helped vs. UNC since he collected seven there.

But Dolezaj had just one rebound on the game, and Joe Girard was the team’s third-leading rebounder with three, behind Griffin’s seven and Guerrier’s 11. The latter player’s production is really the only thing consistently powering SU on the glass at this point. And without Sidibe, plus minimal roles for the rest of the big men (Robert Braswell got two boards in nine minutes against the Heels while Jesse Edwards had zero in seven minutes), there doesn’t necessarily seem to be a solution in sight.

According to the box score, rebounds are a crucial element for Syracuse. That’s certainly fair, though more than the number, the bigger concern is how they’re distributed. Against UNC, over 50% came from two players (Guerrier and Griffin) but no one else was even close to those two. In the Georgetown game, Dolezaj and Guerrier combined for 18 — almost half of the total. But Griffin and Buddy Boeheim also chipped in five apiece.

There will come a game where Syracuse wins the rebounding battle but loses, or is out-rebounded and wins. Beyond just scoring more points than the opponent, that outcome will likely come from a better distribution on the boards too, instead of leaning too heavily on just one or two guys to clean up the glass.