To put Rakeem Christmas’ performance on Saturday afternoon in perspective, look at the final nine games of his regular season.
Christmas played a combined 27 minutes of time, with his high total coming against Connecticut on March 8. He played eight minutes that game.
Against Kansas State, Christmas played a career high 34 minutes in place of the ineligible Fab Melo. He finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and three blocks as Syracuse advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 75-59 win over Kansas State.
“Rakeem was tremendous,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He’s just kind of figuring it out. He’s a very athletic, big guy.”
Christmas’ timeline to figure things out has accelerated since Tuesday, when Syracuse announced Melo, the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year, was ineligible, and wouldn’t play in the NCAA tournament.
Christmas, who started most of the season at the forward spot, shifted over to center.
“The last probably five or six weeks, he’s been playing more at center in practice, working more inside, inside game, inside drill work,” Boeheim said. “I think he’s getting better all the time.”
He certainly showed that against the Wildcats and 6-foot-11, 250 pound center, Jordan Henriquez. The taller and stronger Henriquez finished with 14 points and 17 rebounds, but needed 17 shots to get to that point total.
In contrast, Christmas needed only seven shots to get his eight points.
Four of those points came during a critical 9-0 run midway through the second half when the Orange took a 45-34 lead. Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine each found Christmas for easy baskets.
“He just does a good job playing off us and we did a good job penetrating, getting the ball to him and he was able to finish,” Triche said. “He probably should have had more points, but he did a good job.”
Especially on the boards, a huge area of concern with Melo being out. Even though SU was outrebounded 41-32, Christmas did his part.
“We have to rebound more and we’ll be good,” Christmas said.
With Christmas at center, the Orange was very good.
“He really is better and more comfortable at center,” Boeheim said. “Early in the year we didn’t play him there. You know, now that he gets that opportunity, he’s ready.”
Brad Bierman contributed with reporting from Pittsburgh.