Can Syracuse basketball finally unlock its ‘death lineup’?

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Syracuse forward Marek Dolezaj celebrates a dunk. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim likes traditional centers. He’s like them big, and helikes them in the middle of the zone.

This is why Craig Forth started all 136 games of his career. This is also why SU’s defense has finished in the country’s top 10 in percentage of shots blocked 15 of the last 21 years.

But the Orange’s most common lineup combination down the stretch last season didn’t feature 7-2 Paschal Chukwu, the tallest player in Syracuse history. Instead, it featured the slender Slovakian, 180-pound Marek Dolezaj, at center.

The Golden State Warriors made the ‘Death Lineup’ famous in 2015 by surrounding Steph Curry with four versatile, lengthy wings who could switch any position on defense while knocking down 3s on offense. With the undersized Draymond Green at center, Golden State’s offense was able to utilize the spacing created by their shooters and exploit mismatches against slower big men.

The last two seasons, playing Dolezaj at center has given Boeheim his own version of the Death Lineup. Because the zone makes it difficult for opposing centers to abuse the lightweight Slovakian in the post, Syracuse is able to play its best five offensive players without giving up too much defensively.

Much like Green on the Warriors, Dolezaj doesn’t have to shoot to make an impact.  He only took 9 percent of shots when he was on the floor last season, but he assisted on 14 percent of shots, which was more than five times the rate of either Chukwu or Bourama Sidibe – and even more than Elijah Hughes or Oshae Brissett.

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By shooting 38 percent on 3s and 48 percent on 2-point jumpers, Dolezaj stretched the floor and created lanes for Tyus Battle to drive.

But Boeheim really does love traditional centers. Although the Dolezaj Death Lineup was the most common lineup down the stretch, the combination of Chukwu and Sidibe still soaked up 80 percent of the minutes at center.

Part of the reason Boeheim couldn’t play Dolezaj at center for longer stretches was his slender frame. At a certain point, the opposing big men would ware him down and SU’s defense would suffer.

The Post Standard reports that Dolezaj has added 10 pounds to his frame since last season and is looking stronger. If his body can take the toll, SU may finally be able to unlock the death lineup for extended periods.

Based on the small sample of this summer’s Italy trip, freshmen Quincy Guerrier, Brycen Goodine and Joe Girard III appear to offer upgrades in 3-point shooting from the combination of Frank Howard and Oshae Brissett, who combined to shoot just 31 percent from beyond the arc last season.

With Dolezaj at the 5, SU can potentially play five 3-point threats on the floor at the same time. This will pull opposing centers to the perimeter, creating driving lanes for Hughes and Guerrier.

But let’s not get too carried away. Despite the potential of the Death Lineup, Sidibe will start at center for SU. Boeheim likes his traditional centers, after all.

Sidibe appears finally to be healthy for the first time in his three years at SU, and he demonstrated a repertoire of post moves on the Italy trip. If he can provide points from the block, playing Dolezaj at center will be less necessary.

Nonetheless, expect Dolezaj to play the 5 to speed up the offense and spread the floor whenever the Orange need a spark.

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Jeff Irvine
About Jeff Irvine 101 Articles
Jeff has covered Massachusetts Minutemen basketball for The Maroon and White and The Daily Hampshire Gazette. He has also written for The Daily Orange. Jeff is an Amherst, Massachusetts native, and graduated from Syracuse University in 2006. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyirvine.