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Development of centers key for Syracuse men’s basketball

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Syracuse has an improved group at center this year.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 14 Drexel at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team has a reinvigorated look at the center position this season. Although fifth-year senior Bourama Sidibe is still sidelined with a hampered knee, the Orange have depth at the position with junior Jesse Edwards and sophomore Frank Anselem. Both have played significant minutes in the early season.

Last year, Syracuse had to plug Marek Dolezaj at center as a stopgap for the beleaguered Sidibe. It wasn’t ideal, but Dolezaj gave Syracuse another scoring threat despite being out-manned down low. He also gave Syracuse another option on the floor who could help handle the ball when teams turned to pressure defense.

Edwards wasn’t where Jim Boeheim wanted him to be in the early season and he played sparingly in 2020. Anselem, a true class of 2021 player who moved up a year, played even less.

Fast forward one year later and Boeheim has turned to Edwards as the starting center. He’s provided solid minutes with Anselem backing him up. Against Drexel, Edwards and Anselem combined for 14 points and 10 rebounds. Edwards blocked a career-high four shots.

“I thought they did a really good job,” Boeheim said. “They changed some shots. I thought they were really solid.

“I’d take that every night. That’s good. That’s really good production.”

Of course, it’s a small sample size in only two games. Lafayette and Drexel don’t boast the same type of bigs that Syracuse will face in the ACC. But the way the centers have played is a marked improvement from a season ago.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 14 Drexel at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The center position has been a weakness for Syracuse in recent years. The team doesn’t usually look for its centers to score, favoring defense and rebounding in the 2-3 zone over scoring output. Edwards could change that as the team’s first low-post threat since Rakeem Christmas in 2015. He’s more comfortable in his role and catches the ball with alacrity now rather than mishandling passes.

Part of his evolution is talking more on the defensive side of the ball. The anchor of the 2-3 zone has the greatest visibility on the defensive end — the center can see more of the opposing team than any another other position. As part of that responsibility, Edwards is more talkative on defense, calling out to teammates what opposing teams are running offensively.

“I think that comes with experience, especially on the defensive end. I feel like I really know every place where I’m supposed to be,” Edwards said. “But not only that, where everyone else is supposed to be. I’m taking that role really seriously as I try to lead the whole defense. Whenever I can, I tell the guys where to be, what’s behind them because I can see everything.”

Again, it’s a small sample size, but Edwards has blocked seven shots through two games in just 38 combined minutes. That currently has him 15th in the country in blocks per game (3.5).

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 14 Drexel at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before the season began, Boeheim noted that Edwards and Anselem were lightyears ahead of where they were last year. It was a vote of confidence for his two centers and that meant something to Anselem.

“He knows you’ve been putting in work. So if he says something like that about you, he has confidence in you. He has trust in you. You better go out there and repay it,” Anselem said.

Anselem is a tremendous athlete at 6-foot-10. Although he doesn’t have the low-post game that Edwards has, he’s mobile and capable in the pick and roll, particularly in lob scenarios. He understands more of what he needs to do and where he needs to be on the defensive end.

Should John Bol Ajak get minutes, he’s more likely to play at forward than center, Boeheim said on his weekly radio show last Thursday. Jimmy Boeheim has played sparse minutes in the middle in the early going, but it’s unlikely he’ll get much run, if any, at that position.

“I don’t think it’ll be often,” Jim Boeheim said. “It’s something we could do in some situations. I mean it could happen but last year I knew we were going to go with that lineup early, but I don’t see it that much.”

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