For a few fleeting moments last season it looked like Syracuse could have boasted the deepest and most talented group of big men in all of college basketball. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita were returning lettermen, DaJuan Coleman had already signed with the Orange, Fab Melo had not yet declared for the NBA Draft, and Nerlens Noel had SU on his short list. Alas, the latter two’s decisions did not go the Orange’s way, but Christmas, Coleman, and Keita still should form a formidable trio for SU’s final campaign in the Big East.
With only three true post players to cover two positions, I think Christmas, Keita, and Coleman will all be looking at opportunities for major playing time this season. Jim Boeheim told me at media day that he foresees Christmas and Coleman spening time at both the power forward and center slots, depending on matchups and the rest of the lineup. Keita will play center in just about every lineup he’s in, and when Rakeem and DaJuan are in the game together Rak will likely play the 5. The tradeoff is that while Rakeem is more athletic and probably better at quickly getting out to the wing of the 2-3 zone, he is also a more accomplished shotblocker and would probably be better off patrolling the lane. On the other hand, Coleman is a bigger, more powerful player and probably a better rebounder, but generally speaking forwards are in better position for boards in the zone than centers because of the way the ball caroms. I guess we’ll have a better idea after the team’s two exhibition games on Thursday and Sunday.
All three big men will be interesting to watch this season, but I will be keeping a particularly close eye on highly-recruited freshman Coleman. Listed at 6’9” and 288, he is a mountain of a young man who should already have the size and strength to bang down low in the rough and tumble Big East. A graduate of suburban Syracuse’s Jamesville-DeWitt High School, the same school that produced Brandon Triche and Andy Rautins, Coleman grew up an SU fan and said he’s “real excited and happy” to finally be able to put on an Orange uniform. At media day we talked a bit about his role on this year’s team, and he said he was anxious to start the season and show what he can do. He said he expects to play both power forward and center – as discussed above – but he definitely prefers the 4. That’s typical of many younger players who want the freedom to show off a more well-rounded game and not be pigeonholed into staying in the post all the time. However, he did say that he sees his role as someone who can “get buckets” under the basket, and he’s “hungry” to get rebounds and show everyone that he can be a hard worker. With the amount of weight he appears to have lost this summer I’d say he’s already well on his way.
Christmas, the team’s likely starting center, appears poised to benefit the most from Fab Melo’s early departure for the NBA. Boeheim says Christmas added about 20 pounds to his 6’9” frame, giving him added bulk and strength to do battle with fellow conference heavyweights like Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley (remember him?) or Louisville’s Gorgui Deng. After watching Jared Sullinger shred the Orange interior like tissue paper in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, this news was music to my ears. Christmas showed in limited flashes that he could capably play center while Melo was ineligible last year, and I think that with a full summer and fall to work on his body and his game he may be THE breakout player for the entire team. Remember, a college player usually makes his largest leap between his freshman and sophomore seasons, so if that holds true look for something big from Rakeem this year.
Keita eluded me at media day, and I did not get a chance to talk to him before the session was over. However, Boeheim said Keita has worked hard over the summer to improve his strength and his ballhandling. While we have seen flashes of brilliance as a shotblocker in the middle of that zone, he has a tendency to get pushed around by stronger players on the low block. He may also, and I’m not trying to be mean here, have the worst set of hands I have ever seen on a basketball player. However, if he has improved as much as the coaches indicate then he should provide an outlet for SU’s guards when they penetrate into the lane and look to drop the ball off for an easy score.
Of course there are certainly factors that could force the smaller Orange forwards to spend time at the 4 like last year. Foul trouble, fatigue, inexperience, or a simple desire to play at a faster pace could lend the coaching staff to play a some combination of Southerland, Fair, or even Grant at the 3 and 4 and keep the three big men strictly at center. A lineup of Carter-Williams, Triche, Fair, Southerland, and Christmas would be ultra fast and athletic, great for a full court press without sacrificing much on the offensive end. Something to keep an eye out for as the season gets underway in just a few short days.