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NCAA Tournament: Syracuse basketball role players step up in March Madness run to Sweet 16

Key contributions from the Syracuse role players have allowed the Orange to keep on dancing.

Syracuse v San Diego State Photo by Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball continues its run through the NCAA Tournament with a Sweet 16 showing against Houston on Saturday. While Buddy Boeheim has been the headliner during March Madness, the Syracuse team as a whole has stepped up as key players have made meaningful contributions throughout.

Perhaps no player has raised his level more than redshirt sophomore forward Robert Braswell. The sharp-shooter and defensive specialist has earned more time off the bench as Alan Griffin’s defensive lapses have opened the door for Braswell.

He’s made the most of his minutes and with three years under his belt at Syracuse, he understands the 2-3 zone best of the forward group.

“Robert plays our defense better than Alan. A lot better. He’s obviously bigger, longer. On offense he helps us with our ball movement. He doesn’t stop the ball and if he gets an open shot he’s certainly capable of making it. I think his overall defensive presence — just his fit into what we’re doing — has been really, really good,” Jim Boeheim said.

Braswell shut down his sophomore season with a medical redshirt in 2019-20 due to shin pains. That pain still persist, according to Boeheim. Braswell feels pain in his shins when he runs and jumps.

“Robert’s a great kid. He’s in pain every time he plays. Whether he’s at practice today or he plays, he has pain. There’s not much or nothing, really — we’ve tried every option. We’ve talked to the best specialist in the country with his situation with his legs. ... It’s due to tightness. If that could be fixed I think he’d be twice as good a player as he is now,” Boeheim said.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Syracuse at West Virginia IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

Buddy Boeheim came into Syracuse in the same class as Braswell. The two of them shared a connection right away. Braswell, Buddy suggests, is one of the hardest workers on the team but it goes unnoticed at times because of how quiet he is. Buddy is proud of his roommate for the way he’s stepped up and he’s happy to see his success.

“He’s got a quiet feel to him but once you get to know him he really opens up. He’s really funny,” Buddy says. “He’s got a great personality. He’s really caring. You’ll never hear him say anything mean about anyone or anything.”

“He’s an unbelievable kid,” Jim Boeheim said. “He’s the most well-liked kid on the team by a mile. I mean he’s just a quiet kid. A nice kid. You just like having guys like Robert Braswell on your team.”

Braswell’s on-court play is stoic. He’s not ostentatious. He’s all business. Rare are the moments of celebration, even when he knocks down a big-time three like he did against West Virginia.

“He has no reactions ever,” Buddy says. “Sometimes he’ll have a little fist pump that gets me very excited because I know it’s a big deal when he does something.”

Braswell has stepped up, scoring more points in the final seven games of the season than he has in the previous 16. But he’s not the only one on this Syracuse team that’s picked up his play in March.

“I’m just happy that this team has developed to the way they have and the balance of this team with Robert and Kadary [Richmond] coming off and helping us. Jesse [Edwards] helping us. The overall balance we’ve had. Joe [Girard] picking it up,” Jim Boeheim said.

Girard too has played well in post-season play. He leads Syracuse in assists and rebounding through the NCAA Tournament. Only team personnel, game day staff and media were allowed in the Carrier Dome this season. Having fans in Indianapolis has been a tailwind for Girard.

“He’s a winner. He’s always been a winner,” Buddy said. “He loves having the fans here, probably more than anyone.”

Girard is 7-16 from 3-point land in the tournament.

Syracuse v West Virginia Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Richmond has been battling through knee tendonitis. He hasn’t gotten to the rim as much, but he’s knocked down jumpshots in the tournament. He made the most important play of the game against West Virginia by getting the ball over half-court and releasing pressure late.

Boeheim thinks he’s one summer away from being a really good player.

“We need Kadary to make plays like he made the other night. He made great plays and he’s getting better all the time,” Boeheim voiced.

Perhaps nobody has been more important than Dolezaj, a forward who has played out of position all year with Bourama Sidibe missing the season due to a torn meniscus. Buddy says Dolezaj is tough and that he’s one of the most fun players he’s ever played with.

“He’s a five-man that can bring the ball up. [He] can make plays, can go coast-to-coast, can shut down any big no matter what size. He’s so smart. He knows when to take charges. He’s a great leader, great person. And he’s one of the nicest people you could ever be around,” Buddy said.

Syracuse v West Virginia Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

There, too, is Guerrier. The Third Team All-ACC player that dominated for much of the season with double-doubles. Buddy was quick to mention that Guerrier was the best player on Syracuse for a long stretch of the year.

Guerrier played well against West Virginia with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocks. But his production has leveled off toward the end of the season. His head coach has said twice that Guerrier is right on the verge of having a big performance. Boeheim thinks he can have a breakout game at any point. Even next game.

Boeheim also hopes Griffin can get a chance to get his offense going, but he first needs to play better defense to get the opportunity.

“We need the balance from everybody if we’re going to be successful,” Boeheim said. “It’s nice to see the balance coming forward.”