Syracuse, N.Y. – The destruction was almost inevitable.
A 48-30 rebounding deficit. A 42-24 points in the paint thrashing. A 24-4 second-chance points beating. All of that led to an 81-75 North Carolina win over Syracuse in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina does that to teams. The Tar Heels don’t shoot the ball well. But they employ a useful strategy for all those misses: They chase them down and put them back in.
Syracuse, even with its preseason starting five of Bourama Sidibe (6-foot-10, 218) and Marek Dolezaj (6-10, 201), would struggle to match the Tar Heels’ brand of Brawn Ball. But the Orange on Tuesday was again without Sidibe. The senior center, who injured his meniscus on Nov. 27, was said to be a game-time decision against UNC.
He never donned his uniform. He was, once again, a medical casualty, though his exact issue at this point is not entirely clear. SU coach Jim Boeheim said Monday that Sidibe had not practiced much of late, that knee soreness had made him a spectator after he had been allowed to resume workouts.
After Tuesday’s game, the Syracuse coach was asked about Sidibe’s status.
“He’s not playing,” Boeheim said. “He cannot play. He cannot play. I’m not a doctor. All I can tell you is he cannot play.”
Within the first five minutes of Tuesday’s game, UNC had already drawn two fouls on Dolezaj, SU’s de facto center this season. The Heels kept bricking up shots and sending their quartet of huge bodies to retrieve those misses. Or they pounded the ball to the blocks where those big men lurked, turned and scored.
Dolezaj and his two fouls went to the bench early, and Jesse Edwards, the 7-footer from Amsterdam who had played a total of 12 minutes this season, subbed for him.
Edwards, all things considered, acquitted himself fairly well. He helped clog the middle on defense. He made a nifty touch pass to Robert Braswell. But Boeheim said later that Edwards “just didn’t compete on the boards. He’s gotta compete on the backboards and he just didn’t.”
Dolezaj was not exactly a rebounding machine Tuesday. He collected one missed shot in 34 minutes. His true value to SU at the center spot stems from defensive instincts and his creativity on the offensive end. But against North Carolina, he took three shots and passed up a late-game open opportunity in the lane. Instead, he rifled a pass to Alan Griffin in the corner, which Griffin promptly missed.
In losses to Pittsburgh and UNC, Dolezaj attempted a total of eight shots.
“He’s making plays, he’s getting people open,” Boeheim said, “but he’s gotta score. We need him to try to score.”
The center spot looms this season as an enduring curiosity. Sidibe, once believed to be the answer, exists in medical limbo. Frank Anselem, the freshman, has not been medically cleared to participate in practices or games since Covid-19 issues surfaced with the team.
That leaves the Orange with two young, untested centers – Edwards and John Bol Ajak — and one still slender Slovak disguised as a center.
“We don’t have anybody that can play that position. Frank’s out for at least two more weeks. We’re trying to develop Jesse in practice,” Boeheim said. “Bol is too small. He can’t get it done out there. We’re still working with Jesse every day. We’re hoping that he can give us some minutes in there. But he’s really the only alternative right now.”
Boeheim conceded the Orange “got beat up in the paint” Tuesday night. But he credited his guys with working inside on defense, with battling as hard as they could.
Quincy Guerrier scored 23 brutal points and grabbed 11 rebounds, most of them in heavy Heels’ traffic. He knew how big those UNC bodies were, how difficult it was to pry rebounds from those determined hands.
“Bourama is not here right now,” Guerrier said. “We need to find a way to help Marek and get the rebounds at the center. It’s not his position so he needs help.”
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