The adrenaline that rushed through C.J. Fair’s veins Saturday night was still palpable through his postgame interview.
He had just outshined Duke’s Jabari Parker in what will be the most-talked-about game of the regular season. That’s why he didn’t hesitate when asked the question that was almost answered entirely by his play earlier that night.
“Yeah. I think I’m the best player in the ACC,” Fair said.
And after Syracuse’s (21-0, 8-0) exhilarating 91-89 overtime win over Duke (17-5, 6-3) Saturday night, it’s hard to argue against him. Fair didn’t only carry SU to a win in what Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim called possibly the best game in Carrier Dome history. He cemented himself as the conference’s finest player.
“C.J. Fair was phenomenal tonight,” Boeheim said. “He broke out of that good, solid player into a great player. He was a great player tonight.”
Fair scored a career-high 28 points, including 17 in the second half and overtime, putting the team on his back in crunch time. When Syracuse needed a bucket, Fair motioned for the ball, sized up his defender and scored.
He showed off the full repertoire. There was the patented baseline jumper that may soon yield him millions. There was the lefty dribble penetration that defenders know is coming but still can’t stop. There was even a 3 from the top of the key, a shot Fair rarely takes.
Everything was working, and why wouldn’t it? Fair’s the most complete player the ACC has to offer. There’s a reason why he was named ACC Preseason Player of the Year and there’s a reason he’ll likely win the award come March.
He’s now scored in double figures in 20 of 21 games. Parker and Tyler Ennis have garnered all the headlines — and for good reason — but Fair has consistently shined in the process.
When reporters bombarded Fair after the game, he couldn’t help but smile. After all, he was the best player on the floor in the best game of the college hoops season.
At media day back in October, Boeheim knew Fair was destined for a breakout season. He averaged 6.4 points his freshman year, 8.5 two years ago and 14.5 last year.
With Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland gone, it was time for the senior forward to take the reins.
“I told my wife it was the biggest day of the year,” Boeheim said on ESPN before the season, reflecting on the day Fair decided to return, “and not her birthday or anniversary.”
I’m not sure how much Juli Boeheim liked that remark, but Syracuse fans were thrilled. Fair, the soft-spoken Baltimore-raised assassin they’d grown to love, was now running the show.
Before Saturday’s game, Jerami Grant sensed something different in Fair. When Grant and Ennis picked Fair up, he wasn’t joking around. He was ready to play, Grant said.
During warmups, Fair hit 14 consecutive jumpers. Each time he’d plant his right foot, follow with his left, catch the ball, open his mouth slightly and shoot.
And when the game everyone had been talking about for months finally rolled round, Fair was ready.
Late in the second half, when Parker came alive, Fair one-upped him. He ripped off eight straight Syracuse points in less than three minutes. His final bucket in the sequence came off a gorgeous lob pass from Ennis in transition.
Fair caught the ball, took a dribble and contorted his body to get the shot off in the nick of time. The crowd went berserk.
On Saturday, Fair made remarkably difficult plays look easy.
“He was a superstar tonight,” Grant said.
Jabari will have his time. He may end up being an NBA all-star while Fair may be a sixth man for years, if he even hangs around in the league.
But for now, it’s clear who has the leg up.
Fair is better in the clutch. He’s a better shooter. He’s a better player at this point in time.
He’s the class of the ACC, and that was on full display on the biggest stage of the regular season.
“He proved today that he’s one of the best in the country,” Trevor Cooney said. “Everyone thought that he was anyway, but he definitely made his mark tonight.”
Trevor Hass is an asst. sports editor at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TrevorHass.
Published on February 2, 2014 at 1:26 am