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In trying year, Syracuse's Christmas improves game, emerges as leader

Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas is enjoying a breakout senior season and steadying his team, which is unable to play for hte NCAA tournament because of a school-imposed postseason ban.

SOUTH BEND, Ind.—It was 35 minutes before the anthem and introductions at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion on Tuesday night, and Rakeem Christmas stood between the three-point and mid-court stripes, arms folded across his chest. He watched the Syracuse players hoisting warm-up shots before him and, generally, he didn’t move. He spoke when spoken to. He stifled the occasional yawn. Other than that the senior forward showed no emotion, as if he was in a highly intense staring contest and did not care that no one else was playing.

It was less colorful than Christmas’ other default expression—brow furrowed like he’s puzzled about how stupid an opponent is for trying whatever he’s trying—but he later insisted it is not contrived. It’s just how he is.

“I look like that 24/7,” Christmas said.

He had done a little more observing than he’d prefer on a night that ended in a 65-60 upset victory over the No. 9 Irish: Christmas played 28 minutes, six fewer than his standard workload. A third foul forced him to the bench with about seven minutes left in the first half. A fifth and final foul disqualified him with five minutes remaining in the game. But even without their All-America-caliber leading scorer, not to mention without any postseason to strive for, Syracuse hung on for the victory. It was another piece of evidence that Christmas’ unswerving personality has bled into a roster in desperate need of a leader.

By now, his final season epiphany is old news: The 6’9” Philadelphia native has posted 18.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per night as a senior after averaging 5.8 and 5.1, respectively, as a junior and sophomore. The glass work is maybe less of a surprise; his per-100 possession board rate was 14.2 last year and is 16.5 this season. The scoring production, meanwhile, is revelatory. Christmas produced 16.2 points per 100 possessions last season; he has doubled that as a senior, now at a clip of 32.0 points per 100 trips.

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Some players may be having better seasons. Some players may be having more valuable seasons. But all things considered—where Christmas came from, Syracuse’s self-imposed postseason ban—no one’s year has been more remarkable. “He’s playing great, his contributions are just huge,” Orange coach Jim Boeheim said. “He changes shots, he rebounds, takes a beating in there every night. He’s just having a great year. We don’t have anybody to replace him.”

Christmas even sped by a milestone at Notre Dame: His second bucket on a 14-point, 12-rebound night represented career point No. 1,000, more than half of which (506) he’s amassed this season. A relatively cramped visitors’ locker room was not the ideal spot to get a detailed view of how Christmas arrived there. But Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins provided the details: In a meeting to wrap up his junior year and look to his senior season, the coaching staff challenged Christmas to do more with an enhanced opportunity. “You lose a guy like C.J. Fair, you lose Tyler (Ennis) and you lose Jerami (Grant), it’s kind of like, what are your options?” Hopkins said.

To refine his offensive repertoire, Christmas kept it simple initially. Hopkins drilled down on what he called the “foot fight”—Christmas wasn’t going to produce if he couldn’t move himself in position to do so—and on perfecting a baby hook with both the left and right hands. From there, Boeheim and his staff grew more comfortable feeding Christmas, with his usage rate doubling from his junior year to his senior year (12.2 percent to 26.3).

“The biggest thing is simplicity, being good at two or three things, and having confidence in that,” Hopkins said. “And then you start just playing. There’s learning based on how the season has progressed.”

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At least on Tuesday, Christmas did not appear to have a toolbox of nifty moves comparable to, say, that of Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor. He also forced the issue a bit and missed some shots he typically makes—he was 5-of-14 from the floor with six turnovers—due to frustration. But Christmas essentially became a vital offensive player only months ago. And now he can deftly pass out of double-teams or work away from the blocks, as he did in feeding Ron Patterson for a score on a terrific high-low pass in the second half.

These are quick advancements that, in their own way, are as impressive as Okafor’s ballerina-like footwork. “It was like learning Chinese on the go,” Hopkins said.

But Christmas’ most important mission this season was keeping his team together. His senior season became an exercise in agonizing irrelevance on Feb. 5, when Syracuse imposed the postseason ban as part of its ongoing (and almost laughably interminable) NCAA infractions case. Christmas wasn’t banned from earning the ACC’s most improved player award or basking in all-league and potential All-America honors. Still, the conference tournament and a possible NCAA tournament appearance would have been a nice end to an impressive year year. At minimum, the hope was there for a team now 17-10 overall and 8-6 in the ACC.

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Christmas got the news same as everyone else, in a meeting attended by the entire team. If it was the equivalent of a cannonball shot to the abdomen, it was impossible to tell as he talked late on Tuesday. He discussed the predicament with the same detached mien he demonstrated during pregame warm-ups.

“I just took it in,” Christmas said. “It’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do about it. You just have to carry on with your life and finish the season strong and see what happens from there.”

His instant message to his teammates after the news was less blasé.

“I’m not going to quit on them,” Christmas said, “and they said they weren’t going to quit on me.”

Since the announcement, Syracuse is 3-3. But that record includes two victories over ranked opponents (Louisville and Notre Dame) and a very competitive 80-72 loss to Duke. Asked after the latest win about the qualities a team must have to avoid folding under these circumstances, Boeheim returned to an analogy he has used before: There’s no postseason tournament available when basketball players go to the park in the summer to compete, but they compete anyway.

So why should this be different?

“It’s are you going to play as hard as you possibly can, or are you going to get embarrassed?” Boeheim said. “And if you’re an athlete, you go down there and play as hard as you can. So why would you go out here on national television, playing a great team, and not compete? It makes no sense to me to even talk about it, because it’s just not something anybody’s going to do that’s in our program, or I think any program.”

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He’s right to a point. But it obviously is different, and the doggedness Syracuse has demonstrated is a credit to its internal leadership. Christmas serves as the foreboding face of that leadership, and his personality has appeared to take hold.

“You can’t say it’s not tough,” Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney said, after scoring nine of his 11 points in the last five and a half minutes. “But we’re playing for a lot more than trophies and medals, really.”

Or, as Christmas put it, “Everyone’s been playing their heart out.”

Before he walked into a northwest Indiana winter night and to the team bus, Syracuse’s senior lingered near the exit with former teammate Fair, who drove up for the night on a break from duties with the NBDL’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Fair joked about Christmas getting a commemorative 1,000-point ball to sign, and a team broadcaster remarked that no one is stopping a road game to make any such presentations.

If Christmas was laughing, he was laughing on the inside. His face still was wiped clean of emotion even after a grueling win that featured a significant personal achievement. That’s just how he is, 24/7, during one of the most remarkable seasons by any college player this year. No reason to get too excited about this game or passing the 1,000-point mark. A Saturday visit to Duke loomed. There was more to play for.