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Syracuse Basketball: Rakeem Christmas, Trevor Cooney Are Giving Fans A Reason To Care Again

Syracuse's top two scorers could be the two best players on the floor at the beginning of each game. For that reason alone, Orange fans have a reason to care about this season's run at a NCAA bid.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Exactly a month ago, interest and enthusiasm in the Syracuse Orange men's basketball program probably reached its lowest point in nearly seven seasons.

With SU leading 65-55 with 3:56 remaining in regulation against the visiting Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, it seemed the home team was going to cruise to an easy non-conference victory and snap its late-game-melting-down funk, which had led to a two-game losing streak.

However, just like in the two games prior, the wheels came off. It wasn't turnovers that allowed the Bulldogs to tie the game at 69-69 with seconds remaining. Instead, it was poor shooting, as the Orange missed six of their next eight attempts. In contrast, Louisiana Tech went 5-for-5 from the foul line and made four of its next five shots to, once again, get every Orange fans heart beating rapidly.

In the end, Rakeem Christmas' left-handed, baby-hook shot–a weapon he did not have last season–traveled through the net with about a second remaining and helped Syracuse escape with a narrow 71-69 victory.

"How is this an NCAA team?," many 'Cuse hoops fans probably asked themselves, "if they can't handle Louisiana Tech?"–a favorite to win the Conference USA title, but is not a world-beater.

Less than a week later, despite a solid effort against the nationally-ranked Villanova Wildcats, SU would dropped its third game of four moving its overall record to 6-4.

The loss was soul crushing, as the Orange blew another late-game lead–five points with 24 seconds to go in regulation–by not executing in critical moments.

At that time, with Syracuse transitioning out of its non-conference schedule with no resume-building wins, a NCAA Tournament bid seemed nearly impossible.

However, on that mid-December afternoon versus Louisiana Tech, the shot Christmas made seemingly changed a lot of things for him and the Orange. First, something clicked inside him as his confidence skyrocketed. It showed in the closing moments of the slim victory over the Bulldogs, his 18-point performance against 'Nova and the seven games following; which has featured him averaging 20.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.

Second, junior sharp shooter Trevor Cooney finally pulled his head from his behind and began making half of his 3-point attempts (which is a huge help to the offense when he is attempting eight to nine per game).

Third, junior swingman Michael Gbinije upped his scoring production from 6.7 to 10.4 points per game thanks to making more 3-pointers (he has made 60% in the last 10 games) and attacking the basket more frequently. Sophomore point guard Kaleb Joseph started *turning the ball over less and sophomore forward Tyler Roberson is crashing the boards like a mad man, as he has averaged 7.1 rebounds per game over the last 10 games, even though, he's playing only 25 minutes per game.

(*could be attributed to him not playing in crunch time, but he has improved.)

Put it all that together and add 30 days, the Orange are currently riding a seven-game winning streak, which includes four consecutive ACC victories–the latest coming Tuesday night, in overtime fashion, against the visiting Wake Forest Demon Deacons–and are very much in the NCAA Tournament hunt thanks to its steady RPI ranking of 46.

Average Last 9 Games PPG RPG BPG FG% 3PT% (att/makes)
Rakeem Christmas 19.3 8.2 2.2 58.8 0.0 (0/0)
Trevor Cooney 18.7 2.2 0.0 40.2 45.9 (34/74)

Sure, there's a lot of basketball yet to be played, including the seven-game stretch at the end of the season that features two games versus the Duke Blue Devils; road games at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and North Carolina State Wolfpack; and home contests against the Louisville Cardinals and Virginia Cavaliers. If you're a pessimist, that can be concerning.

But, if you've watched over the last nine games, there's a sense, at the start of each game, Syracuse has not only the best player on the floor (Christmas) but also the best shooter (Cooney).

Those two things alone should give a Syracuse fan hope its team can beat any team at any time and it might be enough to help this team make the NCAAs–a feat that shouldn't be looked down on during a transition season, which features the roster losing two high school studs due to knee injuries.

(Oh, and don't forget, with possible NCAA sanctions looming, it could be the last time SU hoops sees the postseason for awhile.)

All of those reasons are why there should be more interest and enthusiasm for this Orange squad–which has improved, is currently winning the games it should and is playing hard so its supporters can witness meaningful March hoops–on Saturday, when they travel to the Clemson Tigers.

Sure, it's not what 'Cuse fans have become accustom to over the last seven years or so, but it's what they have. And what they have isn't has bad as many thought 30 days ago, before Christmas took his game to another level and when Jim Boeheim's squad was tied with Louisiana Tech with seconds to go.