PITTSBURGH Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim keeps insisting freshman center Rakeem Christmas is a talented player with a huge upside.
Unfortunately, his limited playing time the last month and the fact that Fab Melo was playing ahead of him hindered Christmass progress.
But the past few days here in the Steel City, with Melo in Syracuse due to an eligibility issue, the 6-foot-9 rookie from Philadelphia has finally given Orange fans a glimpse of perhaps what to expect the next few seasons.
Playing a career-high 34 minutes, Christmas was a force in the middle for SU during their 75-59 NCAA third-round win over Kansas State. He scored only eight points, but grabbed 11 rebounds, blocked three shots and was a physical presence against the Wildcats big front line.
Rakeem was tremendous, said SU coach Jim Boeheim, who replaced him in the starting lineup with C. J. Fair during the Big East Tournament after Christmas started the first 31 games. Hes starting to figure things out and learning what it takes to be a big guy at this level. Hes very athletic, but hes also a raw talent who is going to take some time become the player we think he can be.
The soft-spoken Christmas, who contributed six points and seven rebounds in Thursdays second-round win over UNC Asheville, said hes just doing his job.
Coach wants me in there to battle and fight for rebounds first and foremost, Christmas said. They beat me up pretty good the first half (outrebounding SU 28-16). But coach told us all to crash the boards and get more rebounds the second half. I think we fought a lot harder and held our own.
The Orange held a 16-13 board advantage the final half as they pulled away for the win.
Boeheim played Christmas at forward most of the season. But, hes been working at center almost exclusively the last few weeks. Thats where he is most comfortable, Boeheim said.
SUs Kris Joseph said Christmas hasnt shown you one tenth of his ability. I predict hes going to be one of the best players in the Big East next year.
For now, Christmas will settle for helping the Orange win a national championship.
Coach has shown a lot of faith in me and allowed me to grow as a player, Christmas said. Now I feel a real part of this team and fell like I can contribute every night.
Kansas State senior forward Jamar Samuels, a 6-foot-7 forward who was second in scoring and rebounding, did not suit up Saturday due to an eligibility concern.
The Wildcats made the announcement just 30 minutes before the 12:15 p.m. start of Saturdays game. Samuels was averaging 10.6 points and 6.3 rebounds.
Hes my toughest kid, said a teary-eyed Kansas State coach Frank White as he discussed the Samuels situation after the loss to Syracuse. He can make a shot inside the zone, and hes a physical player. We had to replace him with a freshman, and thats not good at this stage of the season.
While saying he could not talk specifically about Samuels problem, as Syracuse did not about the Fab Melo situation, Martin nevertheless said, in my opinion the kid absolutely did nothing wrong. We found out just last night, and its a completely unfortunate situation. But sometimes a school has to take a stand on an issue, and err on side of caution.
Teammate Rodney McGruder, who hails from Washington, D.C., like Samuels, said not having his buddy on the court was sad.
Hes been my friend since we were young, McGruder said. Hes also one of our leaders, and I think thats where we missed him the most. Knowing he would never play another game at Kansas State is not the way to end your career.
A FINAL THOUGHT
SU coach Jim Boeheim improved to 47-27 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, which tied him for fifth in victories with legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.
Yeh, it took him 10 years to win that many, Boeheim said. It took me 29.