Rakeem Christmas has played major minutes for Syracuse since arriving on campus. Now in his senior season, he's expected to fill those minutes with big-time production.
Christmas and the No. 23 Orange look to build off a impressive season-opening performance when they square off Sunday against Hampton.
Syracuse (1-0) demolished Kennesaw State 89-42 on Friday behind a career-best 21 points from Christmas, who shot 8 of 13 - both career highs - and hauled in nine rebounds.
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward primarily displayed his dominance in the paint.
"I just wanted to be aggressive," he said. "When I get the ball, I'm trying to be aggressive with it. That's what I've been doing."
That sort of offensive output has not been the norm for Christmas, but following the departures of top scorers C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis, he has been thrust into the feature role - a spot coach Jim Boeheim is confident he can fill.
"He's gotten better every year," Boeheim said. "He's very capable offensively. He's much better this year. His mindset is a lot better this year. He's worked a lot more on his offense this year. The big guys come to a realization a little later."
With Syracuse's offensive focus heavily shifting toward big men, Christmas' output will likely continue its upward trend. Four of the five players who scored in double figures for the Orange on Friday were forwards.
Chris McCullough had 16 points and 11 rebounds, Tyler Roberson finished with 10 of each and B.J. Johnson contributed 19 points and eight boards in 26 minutes off the bench.
The Orange also outrebounded Kennesaw State 56-26.
"This is one of the strengths of this year's team," Boeheim said of the inside presence. "We have to be able to get on the boards and take advantage of that. We are a much better rebounding team."
Syracuse adds yet another big man Sunday with the season debut of Michael Gbinije, who sat out the opener over a unspecified violation of team rules.
Trevor Cooney provided nearly all of Syracuse's production in the backcourt with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, but his workload may decrease as freshman guard Kaleb Joseph continues to improve.
Joseph played well in Syracuse's exhibition games, including a 19-point effort against Carleton. He then took on the role of helper against Kennesaw State, scoring four points while dishing six assists.
"He made a couple mistakes, which is normal for most freshman point guards," Boeheim said. "And he'll learn from them."
Hampton (0-1) continues its season-opening four-game trip after losing to Iowa 90-56 on Friday while shooting just 33.9 percent from the field.
Quinton Chievous, a transfer from Tennessee, led the Pirates with 12 points and nine rebounds after playing limited minutes over two seasons with the Volunteers.
Hampton struggled against the Hawkeyes' front line, allowing forward Aaron White to score 19 points in just 21 minutes. The Pirates will find themselves in a similar dilemma against Syracuse and Christmas.
"Coach Boeheim told me that this is my year," Christmas said. "I'm going to get the ball a lot, so everyone is going to play off me. That's what I've been trying to do."