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College Basketball

C.J. Fair leans on inspiration of his icons to lead undefeated Syracuse

Photo: Rich Barnes/Getty Images

C.J. Fair is facing more defensive attention this season but that hasn't slowed his scoring.

Stunning losses! Record-book team performances! Player of the Year jockeying! Yes, another fascinating week of college hoops is in the books. Read on.

Spotlight on C.J. Fair, Syracuse

At least two hoops icons have left their marks on the game of Syracuse senior forward C.J. Fair. One is Carmelo Anthony, a fellow Baltimorean whose midrange game Fair tried to emulate growing up. (Fair, alas, didn't attend Syracuse because of 'Melo -- "This place just felt like home when I visited," says Fair -- nor does he wear his signature headband in tribute. That accessory is a remnant of Fair's days at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, when his hair grew long for want of a barber.) The other influential superstar? Michael Jordan, but not for the reason you might think. A few years ago Fair read an interview in which Jordan was asked how he stayed motivated to give his best effort every single game, even against lesser competition. Jordan's response: There might be a family out there seeing him for the first time, and he wanted to make a good impression.

And so Fair, a 6-foot-8 lefty, plays every game like it's some spectator's first. The result is a remarkable record of consistency. Last season, when he was the Orange's fourth scoring option behind Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland, Fair was the team's leading scorer and rebounder, delivering a steady drip of 14.5 points and 7 rebounds a game. This year, when he is the Orange's go-to guy and every shot is contested, he produces 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds, first and second, respectively, on the team. In 18 games, all wins, he has failed to score in double figures just once, and that was in the fourth game of the season, against St. Francis.

Fair is so quiet in his consistency that even Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim admits he sometimes takes him for granted. "CJ is by far our best player," says Boeheim. "He has been our best player for two years. Some people think Jerami Grant is our best player because he gets highlight dunks. Some people think Tyler Ennis is because he makes great plays. But the reason we're in a position for those guys to do that is because C.J. Fair is there for us. Sometimes we forget -- sometimes even I forget -- C.J. Fair is why we won the game. He's the reason the win, and sometimes even I don't see that."

Fair, the Maui Invitational MVP, doesn't do a lot beyond his play to raise his national profile. His biggest diversion off the court and away from school is devouring TV series like Breaking Bad, Homeland, and The Following. "He's one of the best leaders we've ever had, and he doesn't say a word," says Boeheim. "I think players appreciate a guy who does what he's supposed to every day. And he makes plays for them."

Fair's game is a little different than it was last year. He is more of a playmaker. He has worked on going right and finishing right -- "to keep defenses honest," he says -- and he has expanded his range to the three-point line, though he has struggled to find consistency there. And even if Boeheim occasionally forgets about Fair, defenses don't.

"Last year I wasn't the first option so defenses weren't keying in on me," says Fair. "Now I'm their priority. It makes me job a little tougher. But I think that brings out the best in me." That's always good for a first impression.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton

It's not often that a performance by McDermott -- especially a 23-point game that included a 5-for-5 performance on three-point shots -- gets overshadowed. But truly, Dougie's line in Creighton's 96-68 rout of No. 4 Villanova on Monday, just two days after the Bluejays had lost 81-68 at Providence, was only the third or fourth best story of the night. In one of the most astonishing offensive displays in memory, Ethan Wragge hit nine three-pointers, and the team as a whole hit 21, a Big East record. (At one point the Bluejays had more three-pointers,19, than the Wildcats had field goals,16.) And the Bluejays beat a ranked team on the road for the first time since they beat Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores in 1978. Oh, and McDermott passed David Robinson on the all-time DI scoring list. (He is now at 22.) Note to other Big East teams: You don't want to get Creighton on the rebound from a loss. McDermott through 19 games: 24.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 50 percent shooting.

2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

OK, so Smart missed a lot of field goals, including all six three-pointers, in a 78-80 loss at Kansas on Saturday. But the man seemed to have an impact on every play of the game, whether he was grabbing a rebound (he had 10), dishing an assist (he had nine), forcing a turnover (he had four steals) or drawing a foul, either real or theatrically enhanced (he was 10-10 from the line). His line from Wednesday's blowout win over TCU was pretty fair, too: 20 points, eight rebounds (including three on offense), five assists, and two steals. Smart through 18: 17.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.6 steals.

3. Jabari Parker, Duke

The Jabari Parker that had gone AWOL through the first four games of the ACC season reappeared with a vengeance in a 95-60 clobbering of North Carolina State on Saturday. After averaging just 10.5 points on 30 percent shooting in his first four conference contests, Parker went on the attack against the Pack. He made both of the three-pointers he took, flushed seven dunks, and shot 10 free throws -- just two shy of his total from the previous four games -- for a total of 23 points, his best offensive showing since late December. He added seven rebounds and a season-high-tying three steals. Parker through 18: 19.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 49 percent shooting.

4. Julius Randle, Kentucky

Much has been made of Randle's no-show on the boards in the Wildcats' 74-66 win over Tennessee last Saturday. It's true: Up against the Vols' Jarnell Stokes, who had 20 points and 18 rebounds, Randle, who had 18 points and just two rebounds, was not his usual post-eating self. But the freshman did a number of things worth praising -- he dished out a season-high-tying four assists, was a perfect 5-5 from the line and made his first three of the season. In the loss at Arkansas earlier in the week, he had 20 points, 14 boards and two blocks. He's still a stud. Randle through 17: 16.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 54 percent shooting.

5. DeAndre Kane, Iowa State

Iowa State is one of several hot-starting teams that seem to be in free-fall. After a 14-0 start, the Cyclones have lost three straight. In the most recent of those defeats, an 86-76 loss at Texas, Kane wasn't at his best, disappearing at times on offense and scoring just 15 points to go with four assists and more turnovers (7) than rebounds (6). With the Cyclones facing a gauntlet of four straight ranked teams, including No. 8 Kansas in Lawrence on Jan. 29, this would be a really good time for Kane to reassert his POY bona fides. Kane through 17: 16.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.6 steals, 51 percent shooting.

6. Russ Smith, Louisville

With point guard Chris Jones sidelined with a strained oblique muscle, Smith did a bit of everything in averaging 20.5 points (including five of seven three-pointers), 4.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 steals in wins over Houston at home and Connecticut on the road. Smith's work earned him Louisville's first-ever American Athletic Conference player of the week award, and it earns him a bump up on this list. Smith through 19: 18.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.9 steals a game.

7. Keith Appling, Michigan State

With big man Adreian Payne out with an ankle injury for possibly two more weeks, the Spartans' three-man rotation in this space has been reduced to two. Even so, it was a tough call choosing between shooting guard Gary Harris, who averaged 18.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, three assists and three steals in comfortable wins over Northwestern and Illinois, and his backcourt mate Appling, who averaged 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals in the same games. These guys are both really, really good. But Appling gets the nod because he has the bigger burden and absorbs more of Tom Izzo's affectionate wrath. Appling through 18: 16.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.2 steals.

8. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut

As good and as reliable and as tireless as Napier is, he cannot carry the Huskies alone. The team's fate will depend as much on the performances of less consistent teammates DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatwright. That said, Bazz's performances continue to merit attention here. In an 83-73 win at No. 17 Memphis on Jan. 16 -- "our first road kill in the American conference," as coach Kevin Ollie put it -- Napier had 17 points, four rebounds, 10 assists and two steals. In a home loss to No. 18 Louisville two days later, he had 30 points, including five three-pointers and 11 free throws, and four rebounds. Napier through 18: 16.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.0 steals, 86 percent from the line.

9. Nick Johnson, Arizona

Johnson is a lot like Wooden Watch list newbie C.J. Fair, in that he is so consistent, and so surrounded by talent, that you take him for granted. Consider: In 18 games, all wins, he has hit double figures in all but two. In a 91-68 blowout of rival Arizona State on Jan. 16, he made 6-of-9 shots, including three three-pointers for 17 points, rounding out his line with a tidy two each in rebounds, assists and blocks. Johnson for the season: 16.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 49.7 percent shooting, 82 percent from the line.

10. C.J. Fair, Syracuse

The Orange's one game this week, a very tough challenge from a very good Pittsburgh team, produced a classic Fair line: His 13 points were second to Tyler Ennis's 16, and his six rebounds were second to the 11 of Pitt's Talib Zanna. But he had three blocks, a season high. "It may not show up in the box score, but he makes something happen for us on every play," says Boeheim. Fair through 18: 16.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 45 percent from the field.

In the wings: Kyle Anderson, UCLA; Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico; Lamar Patterson, Pitt; Casey Prather, Florida; Cleanthony Early, Wichita State; Chaz Williams, UMASS; Delon Wright, Utah

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