Sam Maller | Asst. Photo EditorMen's Basketball
IN A FLASH: Christmas sparks Syracuse run, shows potential in win over DePaul
The brilliance surfaced as if from nowhere, and in an instant it was gone.
These flashes of greatness from Rakeem Christmas — flashes that correspond with fleeting beliefs Syracuse could make a run to the Final Four — can both frustrate and elate, inspire hope and then snatch it away. A career defined by inconsistency has become oddly predictable, since one can be sure any prediction will be wrong.
Christmas played 22 minutes in Syracuse’s 78-57 win over DePaul (11-19, 2-15 Big East) on Wednesday, putting forth a Jekyll-and-Hyde effort that illuminates the doubt surrounding this year’s postseason potential. For most of that time he was ordinary, but for one dazzling stretch he was outstanding. And that inspired 4:25 of basketball turned a four-point deficit into an 11-point lead that No. 17 Syracuse (23-7, 11-6) never relinquished.
“I think there is so much more in Rakeem that we’re not getting,” SU head coach Jim Boeheim said. “He plays three minutes, he gets two or three blocks, three rebounds and we’re a different team. You don’t realize it, but a lot of that was his play.
“It just turned the game.”
Perhaps worn down by three straight losses, perhaps thrown off by the unusual 6 p.m. start time, Syracuse opened the game sleepily and quickly fell behind. But Christmas connected on a rare jump shot with 5:46 remaining in the first half that seemed to snap his team out of an apparent funk.
A 15-0 run ensued, with Christmas’ inspired play on defense creating fast-break opportunities to aid a team with a half-court offense that’s grown stagnant.
He blocked back-to-back shots about a minute later, sending a Cleveland Melvin jump shot aside and giving Jamee Crockett the same treatment.
That set up a possession in which Syracuse had four looks at the basket and ended with a traditional three-point play by James Southerland.
“He had a few rebounds, had about three blocks,” guard Brandon Triche said. “He was just going at it, and that’s what we need him to do.”
At 6-foot-9 and 242 pounds, Christmas possesses all the physical tools to excel if not dominate in the Big East. But his career his been a roller coaster with more drops than climbs, an incredibly steep learning curve that has proved difficult to summit.
He played beautifully in place of Fab Melo on the road at Cincinnati last season, scoring four points while grabbing nine rebounds and blocking three shots. Then he clamped down on Kansas State’s Jordan Henriquez, nearly a 7-footer, in the second half of an NCAA Tournament game last season and nearly posted a double-double himself.
It set the stage for a potential sophomore surge a la Melo — only such a jump never came.
“He’s so far behind the curve,” Boeheim said.
So for now, Christmas’ unique physical talents show through in tantalizing glimpses. He’s had three games this season where he was either one point or one rebound shy of a double-double, and Wednesday’s four-minute stretch may have been his most influential this season.
He scored two points, blocked three shots and grabbed three rebounds during the flurry. But in the rest of his 17-plus minutes he barely doubled those numbers.
As March continues — and if Triche and Southerland continue to struggle shooting the ball — Christmas becomes a focal point for the second consecutive season. Last year he was tasked with filling in for Melo in the NCAA Tournament, thrust into the fire on a time with national championship aspirations.
This year he represents a balancing act. Anything he can contribute inside tips the defense a little bit more in his direction, which in theory creates more space for his teammates on the perimeter.
The talent is there; the flashes are too. And exactly when they surface will play a major role in this team’s postseason chances.
“It doesn’t matter how many minutes he plays,” Triche said. “If he’s just able to be somebody like that, with his presence there, we’re going to be very hard to beat.”
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