Sullinger a Tall order for Keita, Christmas

Since the moment Fab Melo was deemed ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, the pressure on sophomore Baye Keita and freshman Rakeem Christmas immediately sky-rocketed as the team prepared to replace the Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East. Despite the doubters, so far so good…but the success hasn't come by accident.

On a team like Syracuse with top-end talent flooded throughout the roster, competition is the foundation for progression within the team. For Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas, the process was accelerated for the second time this season once Fab Melo was deemed ineligible by the University.

Still, the defensive production hasn't dropped off considerably, and the two have combined to replace Melo well on the offensive end in terms of numbers.

Over the first three games in the NCAA Tournament (all without Melo), the two fill-ins are averaging a combined 7.3 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game and 2.6 blocks per game. Melo's numbers for the regular-season were 7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 2.9 bpg.

By the numbers, the drop-off hasn't been anything more than a decimal here or there. Few could have predicted this when Melo's situation was made public – well, other than Keita, Christmas and SU assistant Mike Hopkins, who has taken on the big man responsibilities of the staff this season since the departure of Bernie Fine.

"Those guys help each other," said Hopkins. "When either guy is not playing, and on the bench, he's engaged in the game. They both work together, it builds camaraderie.

"It's fun when you see guys on the bench cheering for the guys who plays the position."

The coach has a point, especially considering how the playing time has fluctuated based on matchups, fouls and momentum during the first three games of the Tourney.

Christmas played a combined 59 minutes over the first two games, but Keita was the hotter defender on Thursday against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. He played 28 minutes in the win after combining for just 19 over the first two games. The uncertainty keeps both players focused and their relationship steady.

"We kind of got a real close relationship now," said Keita. "We talk about a lot of things, like when I'm not in, I tell him the things he needs to work on and when I'm in, he does the same thing.

"On the bench you've got more eyes, more things to see than the guy that's out there. It really helps us."

The two anointed anchors of Syracuse's 2-3 zone will need all the help they can get on Saturday, with big Jared Sullinger and Ohio State in the way of the team's first Final Four berth since Carmelo Anthony was wearing orange.

Christmas played against the 6-foot-9, 265-pounder in AAU ball not too long ago. The two had compliments for each other during media day on Friday.

"I know Rakeem likes to block shots, and he's physical," Sullinger said.

"He's a beast," said Christmas of Sullinger, who averages about 17 points and nine rebounds per game. "He's a big guy, too. We're going to do the same thing to him, try to get around him, try to not let him get the ball in his hands and try to keep him out the paint."

Keita and Christmas will have help in the zone, but Hopkins is just as worried as the big man's passing ability as he is his ability to put the ball in the basket.

"It's like the "Jared" jewelry commercial, they want to ‘get it to Jared,'" said Hopkins. "He gets it in his hands and bad things happen for opposing defenses so we have got to try and limit his touches.

"And when he does get it, we've got to play him as physical as we can."

The slight advantage Syracuse may have heading into the matchup is that some of the coaches, including Hopkins, took in the OSU game against Cincinnati after Syracuse beat Wisconsin. Keita, Christmas and the team caught some of the action on television.

"We've got a pretty good idea what type of player he is," Keita said of Sullinger. "We talked about it today, you have to take this shoulder this way and do this so we kind of have an idea of what we're going to do tomorrow."

So with No. 2 Ohio State on the horizon, how will the young duo respond? Fab Melo isn't walking through that door, and the Buckeyes are favored despite being the lower seed. Jim Boeheim says the players don't read into those things, but the task against Sullinger and company will be a tall order inside.

For a scrappy Keita and an eager Christmas, that's just fine. Kansas State's Jordan Henriquez was taller; Wisconsin's Jared Berggren was more rangy so Sullinger lies somewhere in the middle. Right?

"We just gotta fight," said Christmas.

The fight on the floor should come easier for both centers after fighting to see any playing time earlier in the season. Game tips at 7:05 p.m. EST.

For some more interview clips of Hopkins, Keita and Christmas - check out the video below.


Cuse Nation Top Stories

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On a team like Syracuse with top-end talent flooded throughout the roster, competition is the foundation for progression within the team. For Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas, the process was accelerated for the second time this season once Fab Melo was deemed ineligible by the University.

Still, the defensive production hasn't dropped off considerably, and the two have combined to replace Melo well on the offensive end in terms of numbers.

Over the first three games in the NCAA Tournament (all without Melo), the two fill-ins are averaging a combined 7.3 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game and 2.6 blocks per game. Melo's numbers for the regular-season were 7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 2.9 bpg.

By the numbers, the drop-off hasn't been anything more than a decimal here or there. Few could have predicted this when Melo's situation was made public – well, other than Keita, Christmas and SU assistant Mike Hopkins, who has taken on the big man responsibilities of the staff this season since the departure of Bernie Fine.

\"Those guys help each other,\" said Hopkins. \"When either guy is not playing, and on the bench, he's engaged in the game. They both work together, it builds camaraderie.

\"It's fun when you see guys on the bench cheering for the guys who plays the position.\"

The coach has a point, especially considering how the playing time has fluctuated based on matchups, fouls and momentum during the first three games of the Tourney.

Christmas played a combined 59 minutes over the first two games, but Keita was the hotter defender on Thursday against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. He played 28 minutes in the win after combining for just 19 over the first two games. The uncertainty keeps both players focused and their relationship steady.

\"We kind of got a real close relationship now,\" said Keita. \"We talk about a lot of things, like when I'm not in, I tell him the things he needs to work on and when I'm in, he does the same thing.

\"On the bench you've got more eyes, more things to see than the guy that's out there. It really helps us.\"

The two anointed anchors of Syracuse's 2-3 zone will need all the help they can get on Saturday, with big Jared Sullinger and Ohio State in the way of the team's first Final Four berth since Carmelo Anthony was wearing orange.

Christmas played against the 6-foot-9, 265-pounder in AAU ball not too long ago. The two had compliments for each other during media day on Friday.

\"I know Rakeem likes to block shots, and he's physical,\" Sullinger said.

\"He's a beast,\" said Christmas of Sullinger, who averages about 17 points and nine rebounds per game. \"He's a big guy, too. We're going to do the same thing to him, try to get around him, try to not let him get the ball in his hands and try to keep him out the paint.\"

Keita and Christmas will have help in the zone, but Hopkins is just as worried as the big man's passing ability as he is his ability to put the ball in the basket.

\"It's like the \"Jared\" jewelry commercial, they want to ‘get it to Jared,'\" said Hopkins. \"He gets it in his hands and bad things happen for opposing defenses so we have got to try and limit his touches.

\"And when he does get it, we've got to play him as physical as we can.\"

The slight advantage Syracuse may have heading into the matchup is that some of the coaches, including Hopkins, took in the OSU game against Cincinnati after Syracuse beat Wisconsin. Keita, Christmas and the team caught some of the action on television.

\"We've got a pretty good idea what type of player he is,\" Keita said of Sullinger. \"We talked about it today, you have to take this shoulder this way and do this so we kind of have an idea of what we're going to do tomorrow.\"

So with No. 2 Ohio State on the horizon, how will the young duo respond? Fab Melo isn't walking through that door, and the Buckeyes are favored despite being the lower seed. Jim Boeheim says the players don't read into those things, but the task against Sullinger and company will be a tall order inside.

For a scrappy Keita and an eager Christmas, that's just fine. Kansas State's Jordan Henriquez was taller; Wisconsin's Jared Berggren was more rangy so Sullinger lies somewhere in the middle. Right?

\"We just gotta fight,\" said Christmas.

The fight on the floor should come easier for both centers after fighting to see any playing time earlier in the season. Game tips at 7:05 p.m. EST.

For some more interview clips of Hopkins, Keita and Christmas - check out the video below.

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