Just like that, the Syracuse Orange men's basketball team is 2-0 following a Friday night shellacking of the Kennesaw State Fighting Owls and a Sunday afternoon slugfest with the Hampton Pirates.
We learned a lot in those two games. We learned a lot about sophomores Ron Patterson, Tyler Roberson, B.J. Johnson and how they might fit into (or not fit into) the lineup. We learned that Trevor Cooney is still dealing with being Trevor Cooney. We learned that Rakeem Christmas might just be making the patented SU Big Man Senior Year Leap but there's not a lot of depth behind him. And we learned that Kaleb Joseph and Chris McCullough might both be freshmen, but they're going to be key contributors this year.
There's a lot of potential to be mined here. However, the question posed to the TNIAAM staff has them zeroing in one one specific thing. Specifically, the one thing you know for sure about this Syracuse team that you didn't know four days ago.
I didn't know Rakeem Christmas would be the only consistent offense weapon for the Orange. I know it's early, but through two games, it looks like Boeheim was right and that our senior big man will be the focal point of all scoring. While that sounded scary -- and still does a little bit -- it's tough to find too many issues with 36 points and 25 rebounds so far. Hopefully the rest of the team finds their groove, but in the meantime, it's Christmas every day... which will be glorious until it isn't, as we've seen with hot, one-man starts before.
Rakeem Christmas is good...like, really good. We probably shouldn't be *that* surprised, considering that Jim Boeheim was touting him all offseason, but Boeheim isn't totally exempt from over-hyping players. He did say that Fab Melo would be the best freshman in the Big East in 2010-11. I was a bit skeptical about Rak becoming a force, but it really looks like he has. Obviously, he'll need to do it against tougher competition than Kennesaw State and Hampton, but even against those opponents, he showed an aggressiveness and a number of moves that we never even saw a glimpse of in previous years. It's a bit earlier, but we could be seeing a Rick Jackson-like senior year breakout. Just like that year, it appears that we really need it as well.
I think the play of Rakeem Christmas is a bit of surprise. However, I don't know how well this is going to work. Christmas will not be able to do it on his own. He is good, but he's not the type of player that can carry a team on his back, especially on offense. SU is going to need its other guys to step up on offense and make shots. Overall, it seems the defense should be really good once everyone settles in.
The follow through on Rakeem Christmas being the focal point is obviously strange and different. Syracuse has had sizable big men before, but even Rony Seikaly wasn't an actual point-producer. Christmas isn't just about rebounding and put backs, he's actually having sets run for him. It's kind of cool to see Jim Boeheim change things up like that at this stage, which will of course be ignored by the Boeheim Haters who think the coach never adapts to anything. The truth is Boeheim is one of the better in-game adjusters and is proving he doesn't even need to wait for the games to make changes, too.
The biggest surprise to me so far has been the lack of front court depth this team. Rak has been awesome, playing aggressive on offense, defense and on the glass, boasting much more confidence then he has his entire career, but without DaJuan Coleman this team has no true next man at the five position. Obokoh only saw one minute against Hampton and the minutes Chris McCullough got at the five were not impressive to me. His lankiness is Syracuse-esque and great in other places, just not at that spot. I expect Christmas to continue to play well, but heaven forbid he gets hurt or he gets in foul trouble like he is accustomed to, it will be hard to win without him. I think the lack of front court depth is worse than i assumed along with the need for a healthy Coleman, who as a top 20 recruit we expected to be a very key contributor to this point in his career.
Rakeem Christmas can score! I know, I know. The SU coaching staff had been telling us that they were going to make Rakeem a bigger part of the offense. However, that didn't mean he had proven yet that he could actually handle the greater responsibility. I was extremely impressed with his offensive repertoire in the Hampton game. We already knew he could finish alley-oops and putbacks at the rim, but he showed off an array of hook shots with both hands, up-and-unders, and even a little fallaway in the lane that had me smiling like a kid on... well, you know.
If Christmas can stay out of foul trouble, he has the potential to be a real offensive threat for the Orange. They're going to need it, with beasts like Kennedy Meeks, Jahlil Okafor, and Florida State's *three* seven-footers on the docket this year.
The biggest thing I know now is that this team, while it has struggled at times to shoot, has a much better idea of what an offense is actually supposed to do compared to last year. Look, if you really, really love Tyler Ennis and CJ Fair, stop reading now because I’m about to drop some cold hard truth. Ennis was good, but all he really did was protect the ball. He had no other elite skill. He was a good passer but couldn’t shoot, wasn’t incredibly athletic and almost never penetrated. He rarely turned the ball over but also never took any chances. Already Kaleb Joseph is penetrating and playing aggressively. If you guys didn’t notice last year, the ball sat at the top of the key for 15-20 seconds as Ennis dribbled around and passed to the wing just to get it back. Don’t be fooled by low turnover numbers. And for Fair — holy long 2s, Batman. The guy was big in some big moments, there is no denying that. But he took the team’s spacing and took a giant sledgehammer to it. We are seeing what happens when B.J. Johnson — and he doesn’t even have to make 3s, he literally only has to stand further away from the basket — stretches the floor. Christmas and McCullough are getting lots of space to work with and once they learn to kick it out more, this team could get really dangerous.
I'm not surprised that Rakeem Christmas looks to be the focal point for this team on offense, Jim Boeheim is usually right when he talks about what players are going to look like in the season. But I suppose it's nice to know that Syracuse will have a legitimate offensive threat in the middle. It's not very often we have that. Arinze Onuaku averaged 10.6 PPG his senior season. Rick Jackson averaged 13.1 PPG. Right now, Rak is averaging 18PPG. Obviously, that number is going to drop, but other than that trio of players, our center is usually there to grab rebounds and block shots. To have one who can command offensive respect will only make everyone else better. Now if only Trevor can get consistent...
How about you? What's the one thing you know you know about this team right now?