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College basketball notes: Christmas helps deliver the gift of winning for SU

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Looking at just the numbers, it appears Rakeem Christmas has not been a major contributor to unbeaten Syracuse’s magical run to start the season.

The junior forward averages just 5.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, and has reached double figures only twice all season.

But looking beyond the numbers, and analyzing closely what the 6-foot-10 center from Philadelphia has done, you realize that he has been one of Jim Boeheim’s most valuable assets through a tough stretch to start the Atlantic Coast Conference season.

“Never just look at the numbers with Rakeem,” said SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who works with the Orange big men. “He’s never going to wow you with big scoring games or games where he gets 12 or 13 rebounds. But Rak is doing all of the little things we ask of our centers, and he’s become vital part to our success. And the good thing is, he’s improving with every game.’’

Christmas, who grew up in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, has been especially important since sophomore forward DaJuan Coleman injured his knee and underwent season-ending surgery. Christmas’s minutes have increased considerably, and his production has increased as well.

In the last six ACC games, Christmas has shot 15-for-25 from the floor (60 percent) and averaged almost eight rebounds and two blocked shots a game.

His seven points and 10 rebounds in SU’s overtime win over Duke last Saturday were monumental. Christmas also recorded six blocks vs. the Blue Devils, including perhaps a game-saving block of a Rodney Hood dunk attempt in overtime.

He also had 10 points and six boards in a close win over Pittsburgh, and went for eight points and eight rebounds in a road win at Miami.

“Rak’s giving us quality minutes, and that’s all we want,” Boeheim said. “What we need from him is solid defense, battling hard on the boards and making the shots that are available. If he does that, we’re pretty good.’’

Especially important of late has been his work on the offensive glass. He has grabbed 12 missed shots in the last three games, which has been important extra possessions for the Orange.

“I’ve worked really hard on getting better position (on the offensive glass) and making sure I secure the rebound better,’’ said Christmas, a modest, soft-spoken 21-year-old. “Coach was always getting on me for having rebounds and losing them. This year, I’ve been much more stronger with the ball.’’

Much of his progress this season has been because Boeheim now has faith in what Christmas brings to the Orange.

His first two seasons, in which Christmas started all but two games, he’d be in the opening lineup but on the bench for most of the game because Boeheim felt he wasn’t getting enough out of him.

He averaged just 12 minutes as a freshman, and only 17 last year. This season, Christmas is averaging almost 22 minutes per game.

“It’s nice to know that if I make a mistake, I’ll stay in the game,’’ said Christmas, who toured Europe last summer with a U.S. all-star team. “Coach has shown that he believes in what I’m doing, and that just makes me want to play harder.’’

Christmas has finally developed a few post moves, including a jump hook that has been successful of late. He made a couple down the stretch of the Pittsburgh game when the Orange were in trouble.

But his main job is defending the middle of the 2-3 zone. Partly because of his length and ability to cover ground, SU ranks second in the ACC in scoring defense.

“He’s so much quicker reacting to the ball this season,’’ SU senior C.J. Fair said. “Rak’s always had the physical ability. Now he’s playing with so much fire and enthusiasm.’’

Much was expected of Christmas when Boeheim recruited him out of Academy of the New Church High School four years ago. He was a Top 25 national recruit, and Orange fans expected immediate dividends.

But Christmas only averaged 13 points in high school, meaning he was always going to a be a project.

“Big men always take longer to develop, especially on offense,’’ Hopkins said. “Rak has worked really hard on his game, and it’s slowly begun to develop. He’s become a really good defender, and his rebounding is improving.’’

For Christmas, all that really matters is SU is winning, and he’s making solid contributions.

“Whatever I can do to help the team,’’ he said.

SU AMONG ACC ELITE

The Orange, in its first season in the ACC, has already joined elite company with its season-opening 22 wins.

Syracuse’s 22-0 record is tied for the third-best start to a season for any ACC team. It equals the 22-0 record for the Ralph Sampson-led Virginia team at the start of the 1980-81 season.

North Carolina State, featuring All-American David Thompson, won its first 27 games in the 1972-73 season. The Wolfpack was under NCAA sanction that year and could not participate in the NCAA Tournament.

The 1956-57 North Carolina squad set the ACC’s all-time record by going 32-0 on the way to the NCAA championship, where it beat Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in three overtimes.

TOUGH ROAD AHEAD

When SU was a member of the Big East Conference, the Orange got used to a rough stretch during the season when it faced daunting road games.

That was the norm, and teams knew it was coming every season. Eventual national champion Louisville lost three in a row during a demanding, middle-season stretch before running the table.

So what awaits the Orange over the next three weeks is not by any means a surprise. It just means they have to keep playing well and keep finding ways to win close games.

“Having to go to places like Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Villanova and Connecticut prepared us for what’s ahead,’’ SU sophomore Trevor Cooney said. “We’re actually looking forward to going to new venues like Duke and Virginia, even though we know they will be really tough games.’’

After Sunday’s home game with Clemson, SU plays at Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Then following two more home games vs. North Carolina State and Boston College, the road swing begins in earnest with games at Duke (Feb. 22), Maryland (Feb. 24) and Virginia (March 1).

There is also a regular-season ending road trip to Florida State on March 9 before the ACC Tournament begins in Greensboro, N.C.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net

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