In a season full of frosh, senior C.J. Fair leads the way for Syracuse
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The moment happened in a flash, and without much flash, which underscores exactly how Syracuse senior C.J. Fair operates. Early in the second half of Syracuse's blowout of Indiana at the Carrier Dome on Tuesday night, Fair received the ball at the high post and jab stepped. He took a dribble to his left and toasted Indiana freshman Stanford Robinson for an easy basket.
The play went against direct orders of the Indiana scouting report, and Robinson found himself immediately lodged on the Hoosiers bench.
"If you let him get to his left hand, something bad is going to happen for you," warned Indiana Coach Tom Crean, "and something good for them."
Fair is a fourth-year senior and the rarest of players in modern college basketball: the senior star who waited his turn. The Syracuse associate head coach Mike Hopkins nicknamed Fair "Cal Ripken," as he's emerged as an archetype for showing up every day and delivering exactly what's expected. In an era of fleeting stars, Fair has grown into his role.
And as Fair's senior year hits the quarter pole and No. 4 Syracuse has emerged as a threat to return to the Final Four, Fair has settled in comfortably as Syracuse's go-to guy.
After being a perpetual sidekick to players like Dion Waiters and Michael Carter-Williams, Fair has become the focal point of Syracuse's offense. Need proof? He gets what are termed "Melo plays," called for him -- isolations on the baseline and elbow that entered the Syracuse playbook during Carmelo Anthony's six-month stop on campus.
"That was one of the main reasons I decided to come back for my senior year," Fair said. "I didn't have that go-to mentality. I didn't really experience it. So I knew coming back I would experience it and it would take me to another level."
Fair has a small scar under his right eye that symbolizes his new role. After a violent dunk against Minnesota in Syracuse's first game in Maui, Fair got hit by a defender and his face cut open. Eleven stiches later he had a Maui souvenir courtesy of his more aggressive approach.
The scar will last forever, but Fair managed to return, winning the Maui Classic MVP and making a lasting impression. He scored 24 points in the Maui final against Baylor, including two deft mid-range jumpers when Baylor cut Syracuse's lead to six twice in the final three minutes.
Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim kept calling Melo plays, and Fair delivered by making tough, guarded mid-range shots.
"That's why he came back, to win the Maui MVP, for a chance to win a national championship and leave his legacy at Syracuse," Hopkins said. "That's what's been fun to see."
And as Fair has blossomed, so have the pieces around him. Tyler Ennis has emerged as the stoic face of professional point guard play. ("He might as well be a senior," said Indiana associate head coach Tim Buckley). Jerami Grant's length and athleticism have NBA teams intrigued. Trevor Cooney scored 21 in the 69-52 win over Indiana, as he's emerged from a fickle role player to a confident scorer.
But Syracuse's NCAA Tournament hopes revolve around Fair. And he impressed Indiana coaches with what he chooses not to do as much as what he does.
"He's just efficient," said the Indiana Coach Tom Crean. "Everything about him is efficient. His strengths are very defined. If you let him get to them, they're going to pay for it."
Fair watches ESPN, and he acknowledges the network's obsession with this precocious freshmen class bothers him. He knows that, in the perverse NBA prism that players are typically viewed through, being a senior can be seen as a liability.
"I mean, as a competitor, yeah," Fair said when asked if the endless attention showered on the freshmen irks him. "I get to go against a couple of those guys. That's something I'm looking forward to. But I give respect where it's due. A lot of those guys are nice."
Fair particularly has enjoyed watching Duke's Jabari Parker -- perhaps it's mutual respect for a polished mid-range game. But while Parker has been anointed as a Top 3 pick, Fair still needs to keep proving himself to reach the first round.
An informal poll of NBA scouts on Tuesday -- there were 20 in the Carrier Dome -- showed that Fair will go somewhere between 25 and 40 in the Draft. He took a long look at the Draft last year but couldn't get a first-round spot guaranteed. The move appears to have paid off, as he's scoring 18.0 points a game, a progression in a career where his average has improved each season -- 6.4, 8.5 and 14.5. His seamless transition to the program's focal point has surely grabbed people's attention.
"A lot of people want to be the guy," Hopkins said. "But it's hard to be that guy. It's a different role. A lot of guys can't do that, but he's been amazing."
One of the things that makes this year so unique for Fair is that even in high school he placyed a complementary role. He played at Brewster Academy with Will Barton, a spitfire guard for whom the term "volume shooter" was made. Brewster Coach Jason Smith warned Fair when he arrived at Brewster that he'd have to create his own shots off offensive rebounds and broken situations. (Same went for teammate Melvin Ejim, who himself has evolved into a senior star at Iowa State).
"He was a huge piece at Brewster, but he wasn't the guy in the limelight," Smith said. "Every step of the way he's been second fiddle, but now he has a change to be a leader and a go-to guy at Syracuse and potentially the ACC Player of the Year. It's pretty neat."
Another thing that's stayed the same is Fair's temperament: quiet and even-keeled.
"C.J. wasn't low maintenance," Smith said. "He was no maintenance."
There's a little-known tie between Anthony and Fair, both of whom are Baltimore natives. Before Anthony jumped to Oak Hill Academy, he played for Mike Daniel at Towson Catholic. Fair played for Daniel at Baltimore City College before transferring to Brewster, and Daniel tipped off the Syracuse coaches to keep an eye on him (Fair missed his entire junior year, making him an under-the-radar recruit).
All these years later, Fair finds himself running "'Melo plays." With less sizzle but plenty of substance, Fair has shown his value to the program.
"We've had the one-and-dones and the two-and-dones and then you have the guys who've meant so much to the program," Hopkins said. "The guys like John Wallace, Hakim Warrick, Gerry McNamara have more value and win more games over time. C.J.'s the same, he's been Mr. Consistency."
And thanks to Syracuse's Cal Ripken, the Orange program is streaking toward another postseason.