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Syracuse Basketball: Reflecting on Rakeem Christmas' Season, Career

Rakeem Christmas will play his final game for Syracuse tomorrow. We reflect on his breakout season.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after his team suffered a 59-47 loss to the Virginia Cavaliers on Monday, Syracuse center Rakeem Christmas sat at his locker with a blank stare on his face. Having just played his last game at the Carrier Dome for the Orange, he quietly answered questions in the middle of a scrum of reporters.

Moments earlier, SU head coach Jim Boeheim finished his postgame press conference saying he wasn't sure "exactly how" the Orange have managed to win 18 games this season. Yet for those who have followed Syracuse for the past few months, it's not difficult to figure out how the team reached 18 victories.

Even in January and February, it was all Christmas.

The Philadelphia native ranks third in the ACC in scoring (17.6 PPG), fourth in rebounding (9.0 RPG), and second in blocks (2.4 BPG). He's scored in double figures in all but two games this season and has recorded 12 double-doubles. A season after he averaged only 5.8 points per game and 5.1 rebounds per game, he's evolved into one of the ACC's most dominant players in his final season, which is quickly coming to an end.

Boeheim, known for being brutally honest in his assessment of players, hasn't stopped short in his praise of the center.

"Rakeem has accomplished as much as any player, in terms of his improvements and what he did for his team, that we've ever had here at Syracuse," the head coach said in a press conference Wednesday.

Unfortunately for Boeheim and Syracuse, Christmas will play his last game with SU on Saturday, when the team visits Raleigh for a battle with Trevor Lacey and NC State. He won't have an opportunity at playing in any postseason tournament, since SU self-imposed a postseason ban in February.

For the big man, it's been quite the ride for the past four years, none more eventful than the last one. Christmas' teammates say his transformation started in the offseason.

"He really took off this summer," SU guard Trevor Cooney said. "...I think he really started to understand how good he is, and how good he can become."

In today's one-and-done age of college basketball, it's unusual to see a player blossom like Christmas has as a senior. Typically, the best players are freshmen, who move onto the NBA after their one season in college.

But Christmas was forced to come a long way before reaching this point. When he was a freshman, he played just 11.5 minutes per game and averaged only 2.8 points per game.

"When I got here, I didn't know what was going on," Christmas admitted. "I had to learn by listening. It started to pay off this year."

It began on opening night, when he scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a blowout win over Kennesaw State.

Since then, he hasn't slowed down. Even when his team has struggled, Christmas has hardly missed a beat. He had 25 points and eight rebounds against Holy Cross. 24 and 10 against Long Beach State. 35 and nine against Wake Forest. 29 and eight against Louisville.

And he's done it while hardly ever catching his breath. Christmas has played 34.2 minutes per game, a number that would be even higher if he never found himself in foul trouble.

"He's battled for 40 minutes just about every game, just to give us a chance to win," Boeheim said. "We have no other inside threat or presence of any kind. Rak has had to do an unbelievable amount of work."

That hard work hasn't been lost on his teammates, who at times seem happier for Christmas than he does for himself. When Boeheim subbed out the big man with one minute left against Virginia so the senior could get a final ovation from the Syracuse faithful, Christmas' teammates looked more excited for the moment than he was.

Christmas humbly accepted the high fives offered to him by the players and coaches on the Syracuse bench as everyone else in the stadium stood up, applauding him.

It was Cooney, who came to Syracuse with Christmas in 2011, who was the first to applaud Christmas and the first to congratulate him. Given the history between the two, that likely wasn't a coincidence.

"It's great to go on a journey of four years with a guy you're good friends with and enjoy being around," Cooney said. "It's been a fun ride with Rakeem and I wouldn't want to have it with anyone else, really. He's a great guy. He works hard. He's everything you could ask for and more, really."

Cooney and the rest of Christmas' teammates have learned to follow their center. Christmas isn't very vocal -- he's pretty soft-spoken, actually -- but Boeheim says he leads by example.

"Rakeem is a guy, if you're a teammate, you see what he does," Boeheim said. "He does what he's supposed to do, all the time. Nobody has to tell him. Nobody has to yell at him. He does what he has to do."

Cooney called it "a shame" that Syracuse lost to Virginia in Christmas' final home game. Still, the Orange have one more opportunity to win one more game for Christmas before he takes off his Syracuse jersey for the final time.

Christmas said he plans to wait until after Saturday's game to reflect on this season and the past four years. When that time comes, his four-year basketball journey at SU will be over.

"I grew as a person here," he said. "I grew into a man here ... It's the best decision I've ever made, coming here."