SYRACUSE, N.Y. — After Rakeem Christmas scored the first seven points for Syracuse in an easy 80-61 victory against overmatched Bucknell in December, even displaying a smidgeon of aggression with a charge, coach Jim Boeheim had this assessment of his reluctant freshman.
“Rakeem works in practice, but basically he is too nice,” Boeheim said. “He needs to get more physical on the basketball court. You can be as nice as you want off the court. He’s got to be a warrior down there and right now, he’s a nice kid.”
Three months later, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy, folks.
With the absence of center Fab Melo, ruled ineligible for the NCAA tournament, Christmas has been thrust into the spotlight as the new man in the middle along the back of Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense.
He has embraced his role with confidence.
In fact, he had six points, seven rebounds and two blocks in a tough 72-65 win over No. 16 seed UNC-Asheville, then notched eight points, a season-high 11 rebounds and three blocks in 34 minutes of Saturday’s 75-59 victory over Kansas State.
That was the longest he’d been in any game all season.
“Everyone on the team kept telling me to keep on doing what I was doing,” Christmas said. “I believe in them. And I believe in myself.”
That breakout performance prompted a new assessment from his coach as top-seeded Syracuse (33-2) gets set to play fourth-seeded Wisconsin (26-9) on Thursday in Boston in the East semifinals.
“Rakeem was tremendous. He really was,” Boeheim said. “He’s just kind of figuring it out. He’s a very athletic big guy. The last probably five or six weeks, he’s been playing more at center in practice, working more inside. I think he’s getting better all the time.
“He’s a very raw talent,” Boeheim said. “You know, he really is better and more comfortable at center. Early in the year, we didn’t play him there. You know, now that he gets that opportunity, he’s ready.”
Christmas is still a basketball project despite his 6-foot-9, 222-pound frame. It’s mostly because he’s a late comer to the game. He spent most of his childhood in the Virgin Islands, suffered through the death of his mother of renal failure, and was an aspiring pitcher before moving to Philadelphia at age 13 to live with an aunt.
Still, he’s proved to be a fast learner, earning McDonald’s All-American accolades at Academy of the New Church in suburban Philadelphia. Boeheim inserted him into the starting lineup at the start of the season as the replacement for stalwart forward Rick Jackson, Big East defensive player of the year in 2010-11, and Christmas did exhibit some spunk on occasion.
After losing 67-58 at Notre Dame without Melo — the big Brazilian missed three consecutive games during the season for academic reasons — the Orange responded by beating a tough Cincinnati team on the road, 60-53. Christmas had four points, three blocks and nine rebounds in 27 minutes against the Bearcats.
Although Christmas started every game during the regular season, logging double-digit minutes in 17 contests, his slender build made it difficult to pound with the big guys in the Big East and his playing time dwindled as the postseason loomed. In the final seven games, he played only 17 minutes, didn’t score, didn’t shoot a free throw, and had no rebounds or blocks.
Then he lost his starting spot in the Big East tournament and, despite five rebounds and an assist in only 8 minutes in a 58-55 win over Connecticut, it seemed like Christmas’s 88.5-inch arm span wouldn’t be much of a factor in the NCAA tournament.
In a late-season chat with Kevin Givens, his high school coach, Christmas brushed off his diminished role.
“I asked him how concerned he was about his playing time and he said he wasn’t overly concerned,” Givens said. “I didn’t want him to get discouraged. I wanted him to stay positive about his playing time. He said when his time comes, he’s going to take advantage of it.”
Apparently, he’s a man of his word. Now comes Wisconsin, and the Badgers know all about Melo and his replacement, who is much more comfortable in the middle.
“They’ve still got guys who can come off the bench and contribute,” Wisconsin swingman Rob Wilson said. “They’ve still got a good, athletic big guy down there in Christmas.”
The goal for Christmas will be to maintain the assertiveness that seemed so natural against the Wildcats.
“He’s a very, very nice kid, charming,” Givens said. “He’s got a quiet personality, but me and Boeheim both had the discussion: He’s got to get more aggressive on the basketball court. I think whatever Boeheim’s doing is working. Maybe it came down to him sitting a little bit more than he expected.
“Now, he knows the expectations.”