The scrutiny surrounding the Syracuse basketball team has been there for months, starting with the allegations of sexual abuse by former longtime assistant Bernie Fine and, more recently, with accusations that Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim used players for the past decade who had failed drug tests.
Then, center Fab Melo was declared academically ineligible prior to the NCAA tournament.
In the midst of the circus that followed the Orange to Pittsburgh last weekend and will accompany Boeheim's team to Boston later this week, the perplexing shooting slump of sophomore forward C.J. Fair has barely registered. But the former City star will likely get some attention come Thursday, when top-seeded Syracuse plays No. 4 seed Wisconsin in the NCAA Sweet 16.
Boeheim's decision to insert Fair into the starting lineup for the Big East tournament was already emerging as a topic of debate after Fair disappeared at Madison Square Garden and contributed to his team's early exit. Then came Melo's suspension, redirecting the spotlight away from Fair, who had finished the regular season as the team's second-leading rebounder and one of its more consistent players.
But when Fair spent more time on the bench than on the court at the Consol Energy Center during his team's wins last week over No. 16 seed North Carolina-Asheville and No. 8 seed Kansas State — finishing the two tournament games with just six points and shooting 1 of 10 from the field — new questions emerged about how comfortable Fair was as a starter.
"Sometimes, the first bucket is always the toughest when you're struggling a little bit," Fair told reporters the day after shooting 1-for-7 and playing just 15 minutes in a 72-65 win over UNC-Asheville. "You try to rush things sometimes or force things. They played a tough zone [last Thursday]. There wasn't really much easy looks inside. So a lot of shots were coming from the outside."
Asked after Fair had another unproductive 15-minute stint in a 75-59 victory over Kansas State whether the Baltimore native would remain in the starting lineup against the Badgers, Boeheim said, "He hasn't improved too much lately, but he will start. I've got a lot of confidence in him. I know he'll get going — soon I hope."
Said Fair: "I can't call it, but I don't want to say, 'Coach, put me on the bench.' I just gotta fight through it."
Fair, who has averaged just 2.5 points and 4.2 rebounds as a starter after scoring 10.2 points and pulling down nearly six rebounds a game while shooting nearly 48 percent from the field coming off the bench, has silenced his doubters before.
In fact, many didn't believe Fair would even get this far after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during the summer between his sophomore and junior years in high school. Fair said that "more than half" of the schools that had been recruiting him prior to the injury stopped calling, including Maryland and Georgetown.
"I stopped hearing from a lot of schools," Fair said last week in Pittsburgh. "[The injury] happened like in May, and I didn't hear a lot of schools until Syracuse contacted me in September. I knew about Syracuse because of Carmelo [Anthony] and Donte Greene (now with the Sacramento Kings), but Syracuse was like the last school to recruit me. I guess other schools thought I was a risk. "
Fair said there had been a "lack of communication" initially between the Syracuse coaching staff and his AAU coaches about their mutual interest. But as Fair began his rehabilitation at Union Memorial Hospital, he wasn't sure where he would be playing college basketball — or whether he would be able to play at all.
Though he credits the doctors and physical therapists at Union Memorial for "getting me back right," the knee still didn't feel that way when Fair returned to court the following spring after missing his entire junior season.
"You never know how you're going to bounce back," Fair said. "I had a down point where I doubted myself. When I did get back playing, I noticed that I wasn't as good as I used to be. It was a good building point at that time. I had a good cast around me that kept believing in me and that gave me confidence."
Fair said that former Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy, now the coach at Eastern Michigan, was one of the only Division I coaches who stayed in touch. It wasn't until Fair reached Brewster (N.H.) Academy, where he spent his senior and reunited with fellow Baltimorean Will Barton, a former AAU teammate, "that I started feeling myself."
The year at Brewster helped mature Fair on and off the court.
"At City, I was a 2-guard and I was just shooting a lot," said Fair, who was the same year as Jordan Latham, now at Loyola, and a year ahead of Nick Faust, now a freshman at Maryland. "When I was at Brewster, I started driving and rebounding and started making plays for my teammates. I became a more versatile player. Just getting maturity and getting ready for college."
Syracuse associate head coach Mike Hopkins recalled with a smile the first time he saw Fair in practice with the Orange.
"We were like, 'We just hit a gold mine'," Hopkins said last week. "We were just blown away, not only by his athleticism, but by his basketball IQ, his great work ethic. The kid really knows how to play. He knows the right place to go, he doesn't do anything he can't do. He's a very efficient player. "
That feeling hasn't changed. After averaging 6.4 points and 3.8 rebounds in 18.6 minutes a game as a freshman, Fair continued to grow as a sophomore. Prior to becoming a starter, Fair had averaged 12 points and six rebounds over a six-game stretch — including a career-high 21 points and eight rebounds against Rutgers. He then shot 1-for-7 in the two Big East games, his first two as a starter.
In a way, it might have prepared him for the circus that has followed Boeheim's team this season as well as the criticism he might receive if his slump leads to Syracuse being knocked out of the NCAA tournament.
"Being one of the top teams in the country, [the media] find stuff to bring you down," Fair said. "But I'm happy I'm here. I don't see myself at any other school."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times