SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Entering Saturday’s Syracuse vs. Duke game, the battle within the battle was Jahlil Okafor versus Rakeem Christmas. It was supposed to be the matchup between two of the best centers in college basketball. It may not have lived up to its billing when you look at the numbers, but it was closer than it may appear.
Okafor brought his A-game, finishing around the rim and attacking the glass. Only on a few occasions did Okafor beat Christmas in the low-post, with Christmas doing a solid job in those situations especially in the second half. Many of Okafor’s points came off of penetration from other players, leading to open dunks and layups for the Duke Center.
”He had a lot of easy buckets,” Syracuse forward Tyler Roberson said. “But he still played a good game. Overall he is a good player.”
Where Okafor excelled finishing at the rim, Christmas struggled. He finished just 5-17 from the floor with just 11 points and only six rebounds. Christmas was aggressive throughout, going right at Duke’s freshman phenom. But he missed around the rim all night.
Okafor led Duke with 23 points
“He was a little outside and then he didn’t get by,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “He just didn’t quite get to the basket. He had some good looks and the ball just didn’t go down for him.”
The rest of his game was working though. Christmas was solid defensively when he decided to be aggressive, blocking five shots. Early on, however, it was clear he was thinking about staying out of foul trouble. He let Okafor go by him for easy layups in the first half. After that, he was much more aggressive.
”It was a physical game out there,” Christmas said. “I missed a lot of shots I normally make. You’ve got to put it behind you and get ready for the next game.”
As Christmas was double teamed, he passed out of it well, dishing out five assists. Duke frequently ran a second defender at him when he got the ball in post. Still, he as able to be physical and get to the basket at times, but he failed to finish more times than not.
On the boards, Okafor was clearly superior. He used his exceptional footwork and natural instincts to get position on Christmas throughout.
”He’s a tremendous player,” Boeheim said. “He’ll be the first pick in the draft. He’s got the best footwork of any big guy that I’ve seen. They did a great job of finding him against the zone down there and he’s a great finisher around the basket.”
It was a physical battle inside, and one that Christmas was up for other than his ability to finish. He banged with Okafor on both ends, made some nice moves on the offensive end, but had too many shots rim out. Okafor, on the other hand, was able to take advantage of his opportunities, leading to the gaudy number discrepancy.
Christmas struggled to finish despite good looks
“Yeah, Jahlil played, I thought, great,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Christmas is one of the top 10 players in America, and certainly one of the top two or three in our league, and he’s having a fantastic year. Watching the two of them play against one another, that’s big-time basketball.
”Jahlil’s defense – that’s the most he’s been challenged defensively and I thought he responded really well. He finished everything in the second half because we had better movement, a little bit more maneuvering. But he played a terrific game.”
If a few more of those buckets for Christmas go down, the point differential is not nearly the 12 points it ended up being. While Okafor had the edge on the glass, Christmas was better facilitating and on the defensive end. The battle within the battle was fun to watch despite Rak’s struggles.
The best part is, this isn’t the last time they will face each other. On February 28th, the Orange travel to Durham (N.C.) to face the Blue Devils. Christmas and Okafor will go at each other one more time. One more time, at least, at this level.