Last season, the Syracuse Orange men's basketball team relied heavily on Fab Melo inside. Blocks and defensive rebounds as well as altering shots and keeping players away from the basket were all Melo's responsibility.
With Melo advancing to the NBA, those responsibilities along with some inside scoring must be taken up elsewhere for the Orange to have success.
Rakeem Christmas, the sophomore who played both forward and center at times last season for Syracuse, averaged a little under three points during an average of about 11 and a half minutes of play per game. He has taken time this offseason working on being more productive on that end of the court. "Offensively, [I've been] working hard this summer, did a lot of things with [Coach] Red (Adrian Autry) and [Coach] Hop (Mike Hopkins), so just come out here and do what [I was] doing in the summertime," Christmas shared.
The results of those lessons with both Autry and Hopkins have the opportunity to open up the offense for the Orange, while defensively, Christmas' play can close up offensive opportunities for the team's adversaries.
"Defensively, just come out here, try to block shots, get rebounds, and do the same thing I was doing last year," said Christmas, "but better."
As Christmas is being asked to provide more of an inside presence this season, he looks to what he learned from Melo. "I took how to be more aggressive," Christmas expressed. "Go get the ball, ‘cause he was gonna get the ball every time. Just can't [take] no plays off."
Focusing not only on the man in the mirror, but on everyone who may play the center position for the Orange this season, Christmas stated, "We just gonna do whatever coach wants us to do and just come out here and play hard," referring to Baye Moussa Keita, DaJuan Coleman, and himself. In their favor is height and length, with Keita standing at 6'10" and both Coleman and Christmas at 6'9".
None have ever been the outright long-term starter for Syracuse at the center position, but in Christmas' favor, he has had the most experience starting in this place on the court with the Orange. When Melo was prevented from playing in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, Christmas and Keita split time at the center of the offense and defense.
In the team's time of most need, Christmas aided Syracuse to the Elite Eight, playing 25 minutes in the team's first game alone, after amounting 25 minutes from the last eight regular season games combined.
His best game came against Kansas State, attaining eight points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, and a steal.
Though his minutes did not come until late, starting and sitting shortly after has been taken as a positive by Christmas. "It gave me confidence," Christmas shared. "Just let [me], like, get used to the game. It's way faster in college than high school, and it took me awhile to get used to it."
The Orange will need the Christmas that elevated his play in the NCAA Tournament to show up a lot sooner this season, and Christmas is ready for the challenge, saying, "Offensively and defensively, I'm gonna be fine."