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Big men centers of attention as No. 25 Syracuse faces Old Dominion

Syracuse might not have a big problem against Old Dominion this Saturday in the Carrier Dome, but as the Orange move forward with their season, their long-term task is a tall one, in multiple senses of the term.

More than once over the past five weeks, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim felt the need to pull starting center Paschal Chukwu from the floor in the first three minutes of a game. Boeheim is not fully comfortable with Chukwu and fellow big man Bourama Sidibe.

It is generally acknowledged that No. 25 Syracuse gains more at the offensive end of the floor when Marek Dolezaj plays center. Dolezaj passes the ball well and creates a more integrated offensive unit. He was a key cog in last March's run to the Sweet 16. He is a versatile and useful player in the right situations. However, he is not physically sturdy, as Boeheim explained after his team's 72-71 win over Georgetown last Saturday.

"He's going to make plays," Boeheim said to in referring to Dolezaj. "But he's 173 pounds. What's the likelihood that he can play center? A spot here and a spot there? Yes. Against some teams? Yes. Not against (Georgetown's) Jessie Govan. He's too big and strong down there."

Dolezaj has made no secret about the physical challenges of playing center ... and his desire to not explore the subject in great detail.

"It's hard," Dolezaj said about his game against Georgetown. "I don't really want to comment on that."

After the Georgetown game, Boeheim emphatically shot down the suggestion of using alternative lineups as a way to circumvent Dolezaj's limitations.

"The only thing that would be worse would be to put Oshae (Brissett) at center," Boeheim said. "Of all the moves I could make in my lifetime, that would be the worst move that I could ever make. I would be better off playing Paschal at (point guard) than Oshae Brissett at center. But everyone has their ideas, it's a free world."

With Dolezaj being almost entirely unplayable against Georgetown, Chukwu played 24 minutes versus the Hoyas, collecting more playing time in order to bang with the 6-10 Govan in the low post.

"I thought Paschal was very good in the second half," Boeheim said. "I thought he made a big difference in there with his defense. Marek (Dolezaj) can play in the center a little bit but not against someone like Jessie. He's just too strong for him. But he gives us some minutes there."

All three of Syracuse's centers commit more than six fouls per 40 minutes. That foul-magnet identity is even more alarming in light of the fact that Syracuse has played just one top-100 team in offensive rebounding percentage: Connecticut ... and Syracuse lost that contest, 83-76.

"For us to be successful in the long run," Boeheim said, "our centers are going to have to play."

Old Dominion might not have the lineup that is uniquely constructed to exploit Syracuse's weaknesses, but the Monarchs have won five games in a row, the most recent one coming this past Sunday against Fairfield.

The winning streak has been fueled by the play of B.J. Stith, who has been named Conference USA Player of the Week in consecutive weeks. He scored 28 points in the 79-69 win against Fairfield. Teammate Ahmad Caver scored 12 points, dished out 12 assists, and collected six rebounds with no turnovers.

ODU head coach Jeff Jones expressed a cautionary note after the Fairfield game about his team's intensity:

"There were stretches where we had to really create our own energy," Jones said. "B.J. was fantastic and we kept going to him all game long."

B.J. Stith is the son of Bryant Stith, whom Jones coached over a quarter of a century ago at the University of Virginia. Bryant Stith is an assistant to Jones on the current Old Dominion staff.

Stith is a 6-5 guard, so he won't uniquely threaten Syracuse's big men. ODU is unlikely to challenge the Orange in the paint.

Nevertheless, Syracuse knows that it will need to cultivate its post players if it wants to maximize its potential this season. That process continues on Saturday against the Monarchs.

Updated December 13, 2018

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