Men's basketball

Coleman, Christmas still developing on both ends for Orange

Ryan MacCammon | Staff Photographer

Rakeem Christmas has seen an average of nine more minutes per game this season. The sophomore and DaJuan Coleman form an inexperienced frontcourt for SU.

Jim Boeheim stood at the podium and declared his Syracuse team isn’t good yet. After a 36-point rout of Eastern Michigan on Monday, the head coach made it clear this group isn’t on the same level as the record-setting 2011-12 one.

First, he said, SU lacks a defensive force like Fab Melo in the middle of the zone. Second, Boeheim pointed out the lack of a veteran presence at this point.

Ten minutes earlier, Boeheim assessed the progress of Melo’s replacements inside, Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman, who also fit the description of inexperienced players seeing valuable minutes.

“I think with Rak and DaJuan, they just got to keep working every day, they just got to keep getting better,” Boeheim said. “They’re not there. We need them to keep getting better.

“Their progress is going to determine where we go this year.”

The big men will look to continue their development when No. 4 Syracuse (6-0) takes on Long Beach State (3-4) in the Carrier Dome on Thursday at 8 p.m. Christmas and Coleman have shown their potential to make a difference six games into the season, but both players remain works in progress. Neither player has displayed the ability to dominate a game on the defensive end as Melo did, nor have they flashed the ability to score consistently down low.

Christmas is seeing an average of 20.5 minutes per game – nine more minutes of action than he saw last season as a freshman. He also scored 6.2 points per game and pulled down 5.3 rebounds per game. Coleman, a 6-foot-9, 288-pound freshman, has started all six games, averaging 6.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.

Christmas leads the team with 15 blocks, good for an average of 2.5 per game, while Coleman has only rejected two shots this season. Those numbers don’t measure up to Melo, who averaged 2.93 blocks per game en route to earning Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors last year.

As Boeheim said, the departure of the 7-footer, who forced opponents to regularly change shots, makes this year’s team more vulnerable at the defensive end.

“It’s a big responsibility because when you’re in the middle of the zone, you have to be like sort of the quarterback,” Coleman said. “And you always have to talk and call out the lobs and everything.

“You just have to see everything, and it’s a big responsibility and I think I can take it.”

The Syracuse big men showed they still have to improve in that area against the Eagles on Monday.

They allowed Eastern Michigan forward Glenn Bryant to sneak behind the zone and go up for an uncontested alley-oop to put his team ahead by four in the opening minutes. Other times, EMU players cut through the middle of the zone with ease to break the zone and set up open jumpers.

With offensive playmakers like Brandon Triche, Michael Carter-Williams, C.J. Fair and James Southerland, Syracuse needs its big men to focus on holding down the middle of the zone.

The offensive production is a bonus. But any consistent scoring punch they can add could help the Orange become a force down the road.

“It’s not all about scoring, but if they were to catch the ball down low and put it in the basket,” Triche said, “we’re going to be pretty much unbeatable.”

Right now, though, Christmas and Coleman both have limited offensive games.

That was clear as they battled Eastern Michigan center Da’Shonte Riley. Riley finished with six blocks, giving Christmas and Coleman trouble throughout the night.

Riley rejected Christmas for his first block of the night less than three minutes into the game. At the start of the second half, Riley turned away a Coleman attempt underneath followed by forcing a jump ball a minute later as the SU center tried to get position and finish on the block.

Coleman finished with a season-high 14 points, but he said he could have turned to a hook shot he’s been working on to be more effective in certain situations.

As that move and the rest of his game develops, just how far Syracuse can go this year will be determined.

But for now it’s clear to Boeheim that he, Christmas and the rest of the team remain a work in progress.

“We got a lot of work to do to get to be good,” Boeheim said. “We want to get to be good. Last year’s team was good right now. This team is not good. They’ve got to get to be good.”


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