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SU Basketball: The Man In The Middle Of It All

Four years ago, fans had visions of what Rakeem Christmas could bring to Syracuse. Four years later, Christmas is cashing in on those old expectations and then some.

Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

There's just something about being a senior in high school. It's fleeting, but it's one hell of a feeling. It kind of reminds me of making the final payment on a car. It's like, "Okay!"

Obviously, you don't wake up one September morning and all of a sudden you're popular and the laaaaddieess, or dudes, are all over you just because you've been in high school (presumably) four years. It's more of a process. You start off as a young frosh with limited knowledge on pretty much everything. Then, year by year, there's progression, there's experience, there's an increasing comfort with surroundings and with self.

At least, there should be.

I know there are exceptions, as there always are, to the typical rules. But if you've made it to senior year, you reap the rewards. A little extra pep in your step; some added bravado to...just about everything you do.

Which is interesting when it comes to college and basketball. Being on a major D1 team is a lot like being in a school unto its own. You're attending a college but you're also attending the School of Major College Basketball. And for the most part, there's a completely different vibe for people who stick around four years. There's questions about why someone would stay so long -- why haven't you gone pro yet??? -- or there's a level of dismissal -- pfft, he's not good enough.

A shame that's it come to this, but it's come to this.

This despite the fact that there isn't a better feel-good story than one of a kid who works his ass off for four years. Becoming something no one expected, or, just as good, someone finally living up to long ago expired expectations.

That last one, the meeting-hopeful-expectations player, that's all Rakeem Christmas. A big time recruit who, at one point according to several recruiting Websites, was the No. 1 power forward in high school. 247 Sports considered Christmas a "5-star recruit."

Yet, I remember reading "updates" on Christmas a few years ago and some were writing him off. There was a sense that Christmas had kind of peaked, and maybe had checked out mentally, too. This, by the way, was during his final year of HIGH SCHOOL. By the time Christmas' first year on the Hill came to an end, I think fans were left wondering if this was a case of another big man who would never really make a big impact.

Starting center? More like low-hanging fruit for announcers and "pundits."

"It's January, but it's still Christmas in Syracuse!" We get it. WE GET IT.

But he's become oh so much more than un-witty fodder for lazy broadcasters, and he's certainly made his way out of Jim Boeheim's doghouse.

A lot like the kid in the hallways of high schools across the country, Christmas gained a little more awareness and became more assertive with each year. Eleven minutes of playing time his freshman year became twenty, then twenty-three; statistical averages increased; Christmas grew comfortable with himself in his surroundings.

And now, senior year, the court has become his own. He's the guy literally and figuratively running things. I mean, he's playing center and he's not only leading Syracuse in scoring, the first time for someone at his position in 15 years, he's actually a center at the center of plays drawn up by Jim Boeheim! Even Rony Seikaly could never say that. And while the quiet progression was there the first few years, Christmas' development into Beast this season has been stunning.

Sure, you could tell me Christmas is doing what he should: working and improving. And, I guess, he isn't any different than, say, C.J. Fair -- someone who stayed all four years and became The Man after paying his dues (someone else I have certainly written a few odes about as well). Which is all true. Christmas isn't exactly Bill Russell now. And there are a hundred other senior centers across the country who mean just about everything to their teams.

Yet, did you think, just last year even, that Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas, would be in the top five of major statistical categories in the Atlantic Coast Conference this far into a season? Christmas is second in scoring (18.2 ppg), second in blocks (2.4 bpg), fourth in rebounds (8.9 rpb) and is fifth in field goal percentage (58%). And free throws! Christmas is hitting the freebies at a 74 percent clip. He's also setting career-highs in points just about every game now, including the much-need 35 against Wake Forestthe most points scored by a center in a game for Syracuse since 1970-71! (That's some damn fine researching right there, Mike Waters!)

And, the best part about this to me, even with the math verifying what we're seeing, is that this progression and maturation isn't easily quantified. You just can't measure comfort and confidence, growth and know-how.

Did you watch how Christmas attacked the Demon Deacons at the Dome? He didn't just set up shop in the paint and call for the ball, he bullied defenders and demanded his teammates pass him the rock. He has the attitude of someone who's been there and the talent of someone who's going places.

"This is mine, kid!"

Rakeem Christmas the statistical leader is one thing, but Rakeem Christmas the floor general, the calm inside the storm? That's something else entirely, and it's making for one hell of a final chapter for the big man at Syracuse.

Unfortunately, the last few pages will likely end with a loss in either the NCAA tournament or *deep breath, fans* the NIT. Syracuse is so far off the radar that Christmas was left off the Wooden Award Watch list. No one is paying attention right now. SU has won how many? You know why Syracuse is 13-4 and 4-0 in conference. That wasn't even a question because you know the answer. But the nation is more interested in Kentucky running through the marshmallow SEC, or hate-watching Duke, or...anything else other than watching a big man lift a now-pedestrian powerhouse for forty minutes a night. As Sean writes, "...shouldn't a guy who is practically carrying this team on his shoulders warrant consideration {Wooden Watch} as well?"

You would think so. But then again, you wouldn't have thought we'd be talking about a Syracuse center deserving but not getting proper praise. Who would have imagined arguing for Christmas' name to be on the marquees with all the other stars in college basketball? Not me. Not most. But perception and reality can both change through four years.

Christmas changed perceptions and realities into something else this year.  It took work. It took growth. It took time. It's led to him being more of himself on the court because Rakeem Christmas knows, this is his school now.