MBB : Christmas finding comfort zone as Syracuse’s anchor in paint

first_imgBOSTON – The maturation process for Rakeem Christmas began in late January. Thrust into the spotlight as Fab Melo was declared ineligible the day of Syracuse’s game at Notre Dame, the freshman immediately had more responsibility.That afternoon, he was dominated by Jack Cooley, who led the way with 17 points and 10 rebounds as the Fighting Irish handed the Orange its first loss of the season. Christmas started at center, but played an uninspiring 13 minutes, scoring two points and grabbing four rebounds.‘I think the thing that you have to have freshmen do, which we’ve been working on, is figure out how you can be successful for this team to win,’ Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said on Wednesday.Christmas flourished two days after the Notre Dame loss, on Jan. 23, when he had another chance to be the man in the middle of the 2-3 zone. His four-point, nine-rebound, three-block performance in a win over Cincinnati prevented SU from dropping two in a row after a 20-0 start.Fast forward to March 14. Melo’s ineligible again. This time, Christmas has been up for the challenge from the get-go, averaging seven points, nine rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in the NCAA Tournament. The freshman has started 33 of 35 games this season for No. 1 Syracuse (33-2), but played just a couple of token minutes at the start of most Big East games before taking a seat on the bench. Against Kansas State in the third round Saturday, Christmas put up huge numbers for a freshman on such a big stage. AdvertisementThis is placeholder textHis eight points, 11 rebounds – four offensive – and three blocks displayed a confidence that had not always been visible. An encore performance would be huge for Syracuse in its matchup with No. 4 Wisconsin (26-9) in the Sweet 16 on Thursday at 7:15 p.m. at the TD Garden. The Badgers have gotten double-digit offensive rebounds in four straight games.Christmas’ ability to rebound at the center position helped Syracuse remedy some of its rebounding deficiencies in the win over the Wildcats. Those 11 rebounds are more than Melo, who Christmas is replacing, grabbed in any game this season.‘He’s got a natural knack to be a great rebounder,’ Hopkins said. ‘I think the thing where we’re better is he’s a better defensive rebounder than we’ve had. Ricky Jackson was pretty darn good, but he’s as good a center (as) a rebounder as we’ve had.’In the Syracuse 2-3 zone, Hopkins said the center is usually out of position to rebound when a shot comes off the rim. That makes Christmas’ performance even more astonishing from last weekend.Hopkins works the Orange big men. Getting Christmas ready to play important minutes at the center position – after playing most of the season at power forward – was a difficult task.But Christmas’ offensive game has improved with the increased playing time as well. He is running up and setting screens for the Orange guards. He’s finding himself in pockets inside where he’s at a good angle to receive a pass.Against Kansas State, he scored three buckets in the second half off assists from guards. Showing what he can do has given his teammates more confidence in passing him the ball.Having Christmas in the middle allows for him to be on the court with C.J. Fair, Syracuse’s second-leading rebounder behind Melo. Not only does that frontcourt rebound well, but Scoop Jardine said the Orange becomes one of the most athletic teams in the country with both Fair and Christmas running the floor.‘We’re a faster team, and we’re able to do more on both ends with both of those guys on the court,’ he said.Wisconsin features three players who average more than five rebounds per game. The Badgers are 17-2 when they outrebound their opponent, compared to 9-7 when they don’t, so SU’s success on both the offensive and defensive glass is critical.With high praise comes heightened expectations for Christmas. The freshman said he’s been getting support from his teammates to continue the string of strong performances.‘Basically, they told me to keep doing the same thing,’ Christmas said. ‘Scoop, Kris (Joseph), telling me to keep getting rebounds, get putbacks and set screens for them. Help the team win.’mcooperj@syr.edu Published on March 21, 2012 at 12:00 pm Contact Mark: mcooperj@syr.edu | @mark_cooperjr Commentscenter_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img read more