Syracuse Basketball Needs to Rebound, Expose Middle, Against UNC

Syracuse basketball, Zion Cruz (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Syracuse basketball, Zion Cruz (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

Syracuse basketball has struggled against North Carolina more than any team since joining the ACC. It starts with rebounding.

Since joining the ACC in 2013, the North Carolina Tar Heels have been the Achilles Heel for Syracuse basketball. The Tar Heels have won nine of eleven total games played, with SU’s win last year in the ACC Tournament snapping a nine-game skid.

Often, this game comes down to one big emphasis – rebounding the basketball. North Carolina has outrebounded Syracuse in eight of the eleven games played between the two powerhouses.

Only once did the Tar Heels come up short in the rebound margin, and that came in a game where big man Isaiah Hicks scored 22 points of the bench. In that game, however, North Carolina had 24 assists to Syracuse’s 14, making up for the missed checkmark in the rebounding column.

Last season, Syracuse was able to outrebound UNC, 37 to 33, en route to an ACC Tournament victory – the last game played of the ACC season until COVID ultimately shut all of college basketball down.

But it hasn’t always been that way, and more often than not it isn’t even that close.

In the 2016 Final Four, the ACC foes squared off for the third time of the season. UNC dominated down low, outrebounding the Orange, 43 to 31.

Fast forward to January 16, 2017, and the Tar Heels once again collected 40-plus rebounds, compared to just 23 for Syracuse basketball.

And in the lone game between the two schools in 2019, UNC collected 15 more boards than SU, leading to a 93 to 85 win for Roy Williams and Carolina.

Part of this discrepancy hasn’t always been the effort. The Tar Heels have often recruited very built players down low that could win battles down low against most teams. Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, and Luke Maye aren’t the easiest guys to box out.

Then take Cameron Johnson and Justin Jackson for example – thin bigs with a lot of length that can pull down rebounds over guys their height.

For Syracuse basketball, it’s been a lot of the opposite. Save for the first year in the ACC when the Orange could rely on Rakeem Christmas, it’s been a roster made up of a lot of lanky, athletic guys, who always seem to be outmatched down low. Against those North Carolina teams, that type of makeup can be exposed – and it has.

But this year, there’s reason to think that could all change. Tuesday is the first of two scheduled meetings between North Carolina and Syracuse, and it should be a doozy down low.

Make no mistake – Syracuse is still slender down low – but the Orange have a ton of experience in the paint. Senior Marek Dolezaj anchors the inside and has pulled down 6.3 rebounds per game so far this year. And after losing a tooth against Georgetown, Dolezaj shouldn’t fear many guys when he’s going up for boards.

The leading rebounder for the Orange is Quincy Guerrier, a 6-foot-7, 220 pound forward who can bang down low with the big boys. He’s averaging 9.3 rebounds on the season, which is also good for second in the ACC.

The Orange also boast Alan Griffin, a guard who is pulling down boards at an extremely high rate, with over seven per game.

And maybe the best news of all, Bourama Sidibe, Syracuse’s leading rebounder from last season might be ready to return to the lineup after missing the last eight games.

According to, coach Jim Boeheim said Sidibe might be ready for the North Carolina game.

“We’re very hopeful Bourama might practice the next two days and be available (on Tuesday),’’ Boeheim said. “There’s nothing sure about that, but we’re hoping that will happen,” Boeheim said.

He could be on a minutes restriction, but just his presence alone would add another guy to the mix, on a team that is averaging 39.9 rebounds per game.

But make no mistake, North Carolina hasn’t lost much. The Tar Heels are ranked second in the nation in rebounds, at 44.9 boards per game. Armando Bacot and Garrison Brooks fall in line with past UNC big boys, both checking in at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds.

Syracuse basketball
Syracuse basketball (Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports) /

Syracuse basketball will have the tall task of boxing them out and try to improve to 2-1 in the ACC. It’d be a big win for SU, as UNC is currently ranked 29 in the latest KenPom, compared to the Orange at 39.

But for the Orange to come out with a win against the Heels, it’ll have to be more than a check in the rebounding category. UNC doesn’t really have the prototypical guy to make plays from the free-throw line against the Syracuse basketball 2-3 zone.

Instead, it’s a North Carolina basketball team made up of primarily big guys that can bang down low, and guards that slash and shoot. Gone are the days where Luke Maye can stay put and make plays from the charity stripe.

So for UNC, it could be a struggle breaking down the zone. Garrison Brooks could be an option, but he isn’t known as a passer, and if he’s away from the basket, it would take away from North Carolina’s ability to rebound.

There really are no answers for who the Tar Heels will put there, or if they’ll attempt to just body Syracuse basketball down low and not make it a priority. But that’s the best way to attack the 2-3 zone, and because Roy Williams doesn’t have an exact answer to counter it, coach Boeheim could elect to pack it in on whoever does play that position on the floor to try and come up with steals.

It’ll be another rough and tough game down low for Syracuse, but if they can win the rebounding margin and make it tough for North Carolina to make plays from the free-throw line, a win could be in line for the Orange.

The Orange and Tar Heels game is set to tip off at 9 p.m this Tuesday.

dark. Next. Syracuse Basketball: Five-star Benny Williams jolts inside top 20 nationally