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Syracuse basketball: Small ball lineup unlikely in 2021-22

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With more options at center, Syracuse returns to having its traditional bigs play the middle of the 2-3 zone.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Syracuse at Houston Doug McSchooler-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball season begins in earnest next week with the home-opener against Lafayette set for Tuesday. The Orange already have two exhibition games against Pace and Le Moyne in the books.

In those exhibition contests, Jim Boeheim experimented with styles of play and lineups, including going to the press and utilizing a small ball lineup with Jimmy Boeheim at center and with Cole Swider and Benny Williams on the wings.

Last season, Bourama Sidibe tore his meniscus in the first game against Bryant. With few experienced centers behind Sidibe, Boeheim went with the undersized Marek Dolezaj to stopgap the middle of the 2-3 zone.

Sidibe is once again sidelined to start the year. With the fifth-year senior out for at least the next three to four weeks, could Syracuse continue to go with a small ball lineup?

“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.”

Last season the offense benefited from having Dolezaj at the center spot. Syracuse had scorers at all five positions and the team averaged 113.7 points per 100 possessions (No. 24 in Ken Pom offensive efficiency), the highest scoring average in five years. But the defense suffered, giving up 96.9 points per 100 defensive possessions, which ranked No. 77 in Ken Pom defensive efficiency. In other words, Syracuse gave up almost one point per defensive possession last season, its third worst defensive average since 2008.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Syracuse at San Diego State Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The difference at center this year is experience. Syracuse has junior Jesse Edwards as a starter and Frank Anselem as his backup with Sidibe out. Edwards came on late last season and proved to be a viable understudy for Dolezaj. He’s in his third year with the program now and Anselem is in his second.

The small ball lineup in the exhibition contests were more experimental, but it remains possible that Syracuse could utilize it against smaller teams or in an emergency situation such as foul trouble. Syracuse practices going small at times. But the Orange really struggled to rebound when it went with three forwards across the backline against Le Moyne. Boeheim expects to rely on his traditional centers this season.

“Let’s say this,” He began. “I’m hoping we don’t have to play that lineup. We’re going to play the lineup that’s going to win games. Last year Marek was the best option to win games.”

Rebounding will be a focal point in the year ahead as will the defense. Perhaps more likely than a small ball lineup is rotating Buddy Boehiem from the guard spot down to the wing.

“We might use three guards,” Jim Boeheim added. “We could easily do that.”

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