Rodney McGruder #22 of the Kansas State Wildcats attempts to...

Rodney McGruder #22 of the Kansas State Wildcats attempts to control a rebound against Rakeem Christmas #25 of the Syracuse Orange during the third round of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. (March 17, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Rakeem Christmas was a few days from his first Christmas as a collegian when Jim Boeheim described him in a way that has stuck to the Syracuse freshman ever since.

After scoring 10 points -- still his collegiate high -- in a victory over Bucknell, his coach compared him unfavorably to another Syracuse big man whom he considered "the nicest kid off the court that you'd want to see.''

That would be Carmelo Anthony, who as a freshman nine years ago led Syracuse to its only NCAA title. Boeheim hoped for Christmas to do what Anthony did and turn down the nice and turn up the "serious business" on the court -- even more so because Christmas does not have Anthony's physical versatility.

"He's not a finesse player," Boeheim said on Dec. 20. "He's not a shooter. He's got to be a physical player. He's got to get stronger and he's got to be a warrior down there. And right now, he's a nice kid."

Three months later, the 6-9, 222-pounder still is a nice kid, one who spent part of his childhood in St. Croix, home of another taciturn big man, the Spurs' Tim Duncan. But now, more than ever, Syracuse needs Christmas to be at least a little nasty.

With center Fab Melo having been ruled ineligible two days before the Orange's first NCAA game, Christmas has been forced to fill in for someone bigger, stronger, more experienced and, yup, meaner on the court than him.

" 'Mean,' if I used that word, that's not a good word,'' Boeheim said Friday in Pittsburgh. "More aggressive, more physical. I don't think 'mean.' The connotation isn't good there. But toughness.''

The next day, Christmas was all of the above as Syracuse defeated Kansas State and advanced to an East Regional semifinal Thursday against Wisconsin in Boston.

In the second half alone, he had all eight of his points, seven of his career-high 11 rebounds and two of his three blocks. He also played 34 minutes, easily his most as a collegian.

"This is exactly what he can do,'' guard Brandon Triche said.

Boeheim called it "tremendous'' and said one key has been having Christmas practice more in recent weeks at center; he spent most of the season as a starter at forward alongside Melo.

"He's just kind of figuring it out,'' the coach said. "He's a very athletic, big guy . . . He's a very raw talent.''

Kansas State had Jordan Henriquez, a 6-11 center who figured to give Syracuse trouble without Melo. But Christmas more than held his own.

Afterward, he said consistent playing time helped during the first two games post-Melo. "It's good to know I'm not going to come out for making a mistake,'' said Christmas, who had not played as many as 10 minutes in any of the nine games before the NCAAs began.

"Rakeem is getting better every day,'' senior guard Scoop Jardine said. "He's ready. He's not a freshman anymore.''

There aren't many days left to improve this season, not with Wisconsin ahead, then perhaps Ohio State and star big man Jared Sullinger.

To that end, Boeheim said in practice he has been "beating him up every day, knocking him around, having our guys knock him around . . . So he's getting tougher. He's probably not getting meaner.''

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