C.J. Fair was an 11-year-old middle school student when fellow Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the 2003 national championship.
At that point, as a gangly 5-foot-8 teenager just honing his basketball skills, Fair dreamed of following in Anthony's footsteps. Little did he know that almost 10 years later, the now 6-foot-8 junior forward would be one of the major reasons the Orange have set its sights on a second national crown.
After a 23-point, 11 rebound performance in Wednesday's road win at Providence, his sixth double-double of the season, Fair has emerged as one of the Big East Conference's top players. He's averaging 13.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and nearly two steals a game while becoming the Orange's go-to guy in critical situations.
And over the last five games, Fair has been even better. He's scoring at a 17.2 points per game, grabbing 8.4 rebounds and is slowly becoming one of the dominant inside players in the conference.
“It's all about hard work and wanting to improve,'' said Fair, a preseason third-team All-Big East pick. “I knew I had to improve my shooting and my strength. I'm in the best shape of my life, and playing with a lot of confidence.''
Fair, who played three years of high school ball in Baltimore before transferring to Brewster (N.H.) Academy, wasn't one of those can't miss, McDonald's All-Americans that enter college with extraordinary credentials.
He was ranked 90th overall in the Class of 2010, and came to Syracuse without a lot of fanfare.
“We knew C.J. was a good player,'' said SU assistant Mike Hopkins, who recruited Fair. ”But we also knew he had the potential to become a great player. And I think this year you're seeing what we saw.''
Fair played in all 32 games as a freshman, averaging a modest 6.4 points and 3.8 rebounds. He hit double figures nine times, scoring mainly close to the basket.
Last season, Fair started the last nine of 37 games, averaging 8.5 points and 5.4 rebounds as he became more consistent in his role. However, he tailed off at the end of the season, which didn't sit well with the modest, soft-spoken forward.
“I found myself getting pushed around by the more physical teams,'' said Fair, whose full name is C.J. Keith Fair. “I knew I had to get stronger and learn to use my body better. And that I had to increase my scoring range if I wanted to become a more complete player.''
He worked voraciously in the weight room in the off-season. Now a svelte 215 pounds, Fair's increased strength has already paid major dividends.
It's his shooting touch that has helped expand Fair's game this season. Now comfortable from 20 feet and in, he's become a consistent mid-range jump shooter, and has made 6-of-16 from 3-point range.
“C.J. worked really hard on his technique and release,'' Hopkins said. “To look at how he shot it the last two years and this season, it looks like a totally different player.''
Fair said, “It's just a matter of repetition and getting comfortable with my shot. My teammates are now looking for me, and I'd more prepared to shoot that last year.''
He scored a career-high 25 points in the loss to Temple on Dec. 22, a breakout game on the big stage at Madison Square Garden.
“That's the game where C.J. showed how good he can be,'' teammate Brandon Triche said. “Ever since then, he's been one of the best players in the country.''
Defensively, Fair has also progressed. He's now a consistent defender in the back of the SU 2-3 zone, and has 16 blocks.
“C.J. was prepared to step into a much bigger role this year,'' head coach Jim Boeheim said. “Sometimes when you ask a kid to do that, it takes him some time to get comfortable. But from day one he's been our best player.''
Fair has also had a positive effect on SU's other big men, notably sophomore Rakeem Christmas and freshman DaJuan Coleman. “Just watching him work in practice and how he carries himself in games, I've learned a lot,'' Christmas said. “C J. just makes things look so easy, but it comes from hard work and attention to detail.''
MCW MAKES COUSY LIST
Syracuse sophomore Michael Carter-Williams is one of the 20 finalists for the 2013 Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year Award.
Carter-Williams leads all Division I players in assist average (9.6). He's also averaging 12.0 points and 3.2 steals per game.
The current listing will be narrowed down to 10 players in early February and then down five players by early March. The winner will be presented on championship Monday in Atlanta as part of NCAA Final Four weekend.
ARE IRISH UNDERRATED?
In the latest polls, Notre Dame is ranked just 17th despite the Irish's best start in 13 years under head coach Mike Brey.
With a veteran cast that plays exceptionally well together, could be the Notre Dame team that finally breaks through and wins its first Big East Conference championship and makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament?
Many of the current Big East coaches think so. “I just love the way they play together, share the ball and work as a team,'' Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
The Irish (14-1 overall, 2-0 Big East) are on a 12-game winning streak.
The Irish were picked third behind Louisville and Syracuse in the coaches' preseason poll. Boeheim said he thinks they are the league's most complete team.
“They've got great guards, a great big man, they play tough defense and they are so unselfish,'' he said. “That's the ingredients for a really good team.''
Notre Dame returned all five starters, including a dynamic guard duo of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant (brother of SU freshman Jerami Grant), and center Jack Cooley, last year's Most Improved Player.
This year's team is built on offensive efficiency. The Irish rank fourth nationally in field goal percentage, 12th in 3-point accuracy, first in assists and second in assist-to-turnover ratio. Paired with strong defense and rebounding, both ranked in the top 20, and Notre Dame has a strong formula for winning games.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.