The play of the freshman in the middle will go a long way to deciding the Sweet 16.
Rakeem Christmas has now become an enormous part of the equation for Syracuse, and the freshman stepped up with the spotlight on him Saturday. Rak City has been forced into action after the loss of Fab, and had his best game of his collegiate career, ripping down 11 boards and swatting 3 shots to go along with 8 points. He played a very intelligent game, and didn’t try to do too much on the offensive end. He also avoided foul trouble against big Jordan Henriquez.
There’s room for improvement, as Rak and SU allowed K-State to nab 25 offensive board. But in the second half, no one looked more confident than the freshman, who admitted after the game that the long tournament breaks aided in his season-high 34 minutes.
“The TV timeouts definitely helped me. It allowed me to catch my breath, grab some water, and get back out there. It’s really a good feeling. Blocking shots, getting rebounds, scoring. When I get going, I get going sometimes.”
Rak’s next challenge will be even bigger. The Badgers are a dump truck of a team, straight out of B1G central casting. They bring big bodies willing to bang, bring energy to the glass, and will grind the game into a demolition derby in the half court. Can Christmas hold his own? His talent is obvious, he’s a McDonald’s All-American and part of one of the most impressive recruiting classes in recent SU memory. Now it’s about learning on the job, and the way he grew up Saturday has to give Orange fans encouragement.
SU fans had been waiting awhile for that swagger to return to the Orange. After two uneven games in the Big East Tournament, and a nail-biter against UNC Asheville, the second half of Syracuse’s 75-59 slashing of Kansas State was an exclamation point.
For the first time since Senior Day, SU looked like it had its confidence and edge back against the Wildcats. After the game Brandon Triche talked about his team’s toughness.
“It’s that fight we got. It’s all about our will. If we’re in the game, then we have enough guys and we have enough experience to pull games out.
It was the quintessential gameplan for the Orange. The zone forced turnovers, Dion and Scoop led a rapid transition game, and the SU bench outscored Kansas State’s 33-0. This team was ecstatic when the Wildcats came out in a man-to-man, and it allowed Waiters and Jardine, who combined for 34 points, to drive and either dish or take their open looks. Waiters provides so much activity when he’s on the floor, and Syracuse finally broke out of its sluggish start when Dion catalyzed the attack. SU was aggressive in attacking the rim, and got to the charity stripe early and often. The Orange knew its opponent, and exploited the man defense. Advancing to the Sweet 16, should shut up some of the doubters, according to Dion.
“Today we made a statement. We are a #1 seed for a reason. I’m very excited by the way we came out and played.”
The energy level was off the charts in the second half. Life was breathed back into the zombies that wore Orange on Thursday. The play of Christmas, and the leadership of Scoop inspired the Orange on both sides of the ball. SU effectively shut down dynamic scorer Rodney McGruder by forcing him out of the paint. But SU will need to show that enthusiasm and spirit for all 40 minutes Thursday when it faces a very good Wisconsin team that can easily slow it down and frustrate the Orange.
Kris Joseph needs to be much more aggressive, and has to contribute something on the defensive side of the ball. He was weak on the glass, and seldom boxed out. Everyone needs to contribute during the absence of Fab Melo, and K-Jo should lead the charge like Scoop did. Syracuse is now just two wins away from trekking down south to New Orleans.
Posted: Kevin Fitzgerald