It’s always good to see local players make an impact in the NCAA tournament. Rakeem Christmas, former Academy of the New Church basketball standout, did exactly that for Syracuse in the big dance. Christmas, a 6-foot-9, 222-pound freshman forward, scored eight points and grabbed 11 rebounds to help the Orange post a 75-59 victory over Kansas State.
“I just tried to play hard and get a lot of rebounds,” Christmas said. “I just try to do all the things they want me to do like grab rebounds and set screens and get the ball back to my teammates. Basically, I just come out and play hard.”
His effort has really paid off. Syracuse (33-2) has moved to the Sweet 16 where it will face Wisconsin (26-9) on Thursday night at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston at 7:15 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS. The Badgers defeated Vanderbilt, 60-57, to reach the round of 16. Christmas is pleased to be a big part of March Madness in his first year with the Orange.
“It feels good, this is my first time in the tournament,” Christmas said. “I’m a freshman. It’s an honor. I’m just happy to be here with my teammates and my friends.”
Christmas has a couple of friends on the team in Scoop Jardine (Neumann-Goretti) and Dion Waiters (Life Center Academy). Both players are from Philly. Jardine and Waiters have been big time players for Syracuse.
“It’s fun playing basketball with them,” he said. “It’s been a good experience. They’re both really good players.”
Christmas grew up playing basketball in Southwest Philly. He has a lot of family and friends watching him play in the big dance.
“My aunt comes to just about every game,” he said. “My grandmother came to a lot of my games during the season. They’re all there supporting me.”
Christmas is looking forward to playing against Wisconsin. It should be one of the key games to watch this week.
When the NBA draft is held on Thursday night, two local players could be taken within the first 10 picks according to a number of draft experts. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a 6-foot-7 forward from South Jersey, who played for the University of Kentucky, is expected to be chosen with the third or fourth pick in the NBA draft. The Draft Express.com has him at No. 4 going to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Kidd-Gilchrist played alongside 6-foot-10 power forward Anthony Davis in helping the Wildcats defeat the University of Kansas to win the NCAA championship. Davis is expected to be the No. 1 pick overall going to the New Orleans Hornets. He averaged 11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds a game this season. He had 11 points and six rebounds in the big win over Kansas. He was named East Region Most Outstanding Player. Kidd-Gilchrist played his scholastic basketball at St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Dion Waiters is another player with local ties who could be taken early in the draft. Waiters, who grew up in South Philadelphia, was a terrific shooting guard at Syracuse. He played with former Neumann-Goretti point guard Scoop Jardine and 6-foot-9 Rakeem Christmas from the Academy of the New Church. Waiters played his high school basketball at Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J. He led the Orange to the NCAA tournament with his long range shooting. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound shooting guard, averaged 12.6 points a game. He shot 47.6 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from three-point range.
Waiters is expected to be selected with the No. 8 pick. The Toronto Raptors have the eighth pick in the draft. Waiters has the ability to play in the open court with his brilliant shooting touch. He can also create his own shot off the dribble.