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Christmas lights up Orange following Melo’s ineligibilty issues

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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 Christmas’s 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. “He’s starting to figure things out and learning what it takes to be a big guy at this level. He’s very athletic, but he’s 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 Thursday’s second-round win over UNC Asheville, said he’s 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, he’s been working at center almost exclusively the last few weeks. “That’s where he is most comfortable,” Boeheim said.

SU’s Kris Joseph said Christmas “hasn’t shown you one tenth of his ability. I predict he’s 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.”

SAMUELS OUT

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 Saturday’s game. Samuels was averaging 10.6 points and 6.3 rebounds.

“He’s 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 he’s a physical player. We had to replace him with a freshman, and that’s 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 it’s 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.

“He’s been my friend since we were young,” McGruder said. “He’s also one of our leaders, and I think that’s 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.”

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