Ziniu Chen | Staff PhotographerMen's Basketball
Coming up small: Lack of production from Syracuse’s big men in recent games shifts bulk of scoring to backcourt
Jim Boeheim yanked Rakeem Christmas from the game for the second time. He followed his sophomore center to the bench, engaged in a verbal tirade and lashed at Christmas for not boxing out Cincinnati forward Titus Rubiles.
Rubiles had swooped in for a rebound up and over Christmas, forcing Jerami Grant to slide over and commit a foul.
Another mistake, another trip to the bench.
“When he plays, he’s probably our best center,” said Boeheim, SU’s head coach. “But when he watches, he’s not very good.”
Christmas has struggled greatly ever since posting a career-high 15 points against Providence on Jan. 9. His two frontcourt partners, Baye Moussa Keita and DaJuan Coleman, have slumped as well.
Monday’s narrow win against Cincinnati marked the third straight game in which none of Syracuse’s three interior players scored in double digits. The recent cold stretch has shifted the scoring onus entirely onto the shoulders of Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and C.J. Fair, making it imperative that all three players produce.
Syracuse travels to Villanova on Saturday to take on a Wildcats team fresh off of an upset of No. 5 Louisville, and the Orange will once again be looking for more production up front.
“We’re challenged offensively,” Boeheim said. “Our guards have got to play really well, and we’re hoping the other guys can contribute.”
That hasn’t been the case lately, as Keita, Coleman and Christmas have endured arguably their worst stretch of the season. They’ve combined for only 22 points in the last three games, and Christmas was the only player to score against Cincinnati on Monday.
He only had two points.
Instead, Syracuse has come to rely extensively on its perimeter players in the absence of James Southerland, who remains ineligible at this point. Grant has provided a nice spark — he scored in double figures against Villanova and Louisville — but he finished with only five points against the Bearcats.
The result was a nip-and-tuck game Boeheim said his club should have lost. Syracuse was out-rebounded by 10, due in large part to its interior trio corralling only five rebounds combined. Carter-Williams, the team’s point guard, had that many on his own.
“We didn’t get a lot of points inside, so we kind of struggled because of that,” Triche said.
Boeheim explained in his postgame press conference that each of the three big men provides a different skill set, which requires a rotational system up front. He said Keita is the best defender, Coleman is the best offensive player and Christmas is the best overall center.
Christmas’ biggest struggle has been consistency, and the lack of it prevents him from asserting himself as the most reliable option up front. He has exploded for great games at times in his career — Providence this season, Kansas State and Cincinnati last season — but at others he has fizzled.
An emphatic reverse jam against Cincinnati on Monday showed the potential, and the failed box-out that irked Boeheim demonstrated the problem.
When coupled with poor performances from Coleman, who did not register a single statistic of any kind in seven minutes, and Keita, the win against the Bearcats was more luck than anything else. Even Boeheim said Cincinnati should never have lost that game.
“We’ve got to get better,” Boeheim said. “This was their first really bad game. They’ve been averaging almost 10 and 10, which we take. If they can do that, we can win. Today was their first day where they struggled and they struggled on defense.”
Saturday’s matchup with Villanova is the last tune-up before the Orange faces a team that relies heavily on its frontcourt players instead of guard play. Up next on the schedule is Pittsburgh on Feb. 2, a team whose leading scorer, Talib Zanna, is a bruiser on the inside, and whose starting center, Steven Adams, stands 7 feet tall.
Despite the recent struggles, Triche said he trusts each one of the big men to perform when the ball is in their hands. And if any of the Orange guards struggle on Saturday, that trust might be put to the test when points are needed.
“I got confidence in everybody,” Triche said. “It don’t matter who is shooting it. I have confidence if I go into the lane I might pass it to Rak or Baye, and they’re going to catch it and score.”
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