Like so many award of it's ilk, the criteria for determining the winner of the Wooden Award are a bit nebulous. Is it the player with the best stats? Is it the most valuable player? Is it the best player on the best team? You could make a case that someone who represents all three answers has won the award in year's past.
You could probably make the case that there are people who represent each answer on this year's Watch List, which was released on Wednesday. One person notably absent... Rakeem Christmas. Christmas, who is coming off of a 35-point performance and who is far and away the best player on the Syracuse Orange roster this season, has not apparently done enough to warrant inclusion.
We can argue the merits of some players on the list over Rak and whether or not he was truly snubbed. But there is one thing that seems to have become clear: In the midst of a "down year," the media spotlight is so far off of Syracuse Basketball that it doesn't even seem like anyone outside of Central New York is paying attention to what's going on.
Christmas is averaging 18.2 PPG (2nd in ACC), 8.9 RPG (4th in ACC) and 2.9 BPG (4th in ACC) while shooting 58.8% (5th in ACC). Not only that, he's consistent in just about all of those statistics. He's not scoring 25 one night and 7 the next. He's the team's MVP by far and, all due respect to Chris McCullough, the only guy whose departure from the line-up would decimate the entire team.
He's having the best all-around season by a Syracuse big man in at least a decade and this is the culmination of one of the great four-year stories in Syracuse basketball history. So how isn't he getting national recognition?
Well, first, there's the obvious. Syracuse isn't ranked and hasn't been in the national spotlight for some time now.
"Well, we're not rated," Boeheim said. "If we were in the Top 10, he'd be getting a lot of attention. That's simple. That's the same every year. Do you know the best player on Wyoming? No, you don't know. He's averaging 18 and 12 (actually 15.8 and 6.7). You only know the guys whose teams are in the Top 10 or 15. Those are the guys who get the credit. That's the way it's been and always will be."
Personally, I think there's a bigger question here. Why is Syracuse so far off the national spotlight in spite of the four losses? As much as the season appeared to be a huge rebuild, things have turned around in the last month. The Orange are 4-0 in the ACC, riding a seven-game winning streak and have started receiving votes in the polls again. This lost season isn't lost after all.
I'd argue there's something that I can't quite put my finger on that makes SU so easy for national media folks to forget. Or want to forget. Maybe they just dislike Boeheim that much and irrelevancy is his comeuppance. Maybe it's the whole scheduling narrative. When Syracuse would go 15-0, 16-0, 17-0, you never got the sense anyone ever took them as seriously as if Duke or Kentucky were making such a run. It was always about how the Orange hadn't played anyone or not left New York or weren't actually that good. And I think that perception has seeped into Syracuse Basketball so deeply that whenever the Orange show weakness, it's permission for media folks to disregard them as an afterthought.
Jim Boeheim is right. The best players from the best teams are usually the ones that get mentioned in these lists. But Syracuse is one of those teams, aren't we? Record-aside, aren't we still a top-tier program worth considering? And shouldn't a guy who is practically carrying this team on his shoulders warrant consideration as well?
The final Wooden Award list doesn't come out until March 7 and the good news is that players can still be added before then. If he keeps up this kind of play, there's no doubt that Christmas will warrant addition, not to mention a place in the ACC POY discussion.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the perception he and his squad get from the rest of the nation. If the Orange happened to gel and put it together in a big way, it could have lasting effects. Syracuse might not just be saving its season right now, they might also be remaking their reputation. Rakeem Christmas's, too.