SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) -Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's eyes lit up when asked in the preseason to assess junior college transfer Kristof Ongenaet.
``Kris has really impressed me, to tell you the truth,'' Boeheim said. ``I really didn't expect that from Kris, but he's come on and it seems like he just wants to play his role - get rebounds and play defense. He'll have a chance to really help us this year.''
Has he ever.
When Villanova (19-11, 9-9 Big East) takes the floor Wednesday to face Syracuse (19-12, 9-9) in the first round of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, the Wildcats will have to find an answer for Ongenaet, who has emerged as a force.
With the Orange facing a must-win game Saturday at home against then-No. 21 Marquette, Ongenaet sparked a game-changing rally with consecutive dunks in the opening three minutes of the second half to spur the Orange to their biggest win of the season and keep them in contention for a berth in the NCAA tournament.
``It was really exciting, and obviously we get pumped up by those little plays and they're so crucial to the game,'' said Ongenaet, who finished with nine points, five rebounds, four assists, one turnover, three blocks, and two steals in 36 minutes.
``We've been waiting for Kristof to do that the whole season,'' freshman forward Donte Greene said. ``In the preseason, Kristof used to kill. We thought he was going to come in and start, but his confidence was shaken a little bit at the beginning of the season. I think he definitely got back.''
Ongenaet, who plays the game at a furious pace, admits his confidence has been shaky at times. But the Orange's second game against Villanova this season, an 87-73 victory, may have been the turning point for the native of Belgium, who came to Syracuse from Cuesta College in California.
Ongenaet, who moved into the starting lineup 11 games ago, finished with a season-high 12 points, including a critical 3-pointer after the Wildcats had pulled to 66-60 in the second half, and also had five rebounds, three blocks and two assists in 36 minutes.
``He's played hard from day one. He's making a huge adjustment coming in and playing at this level,'' Boeheim said. ``Very few junior college players can play at this level. If you look around the country, you will see very, very few that can come into the Big East or the ACC and be a factor. He's giving us a lot of good minutes.''
If anybody should know about junior college players, it's Boeheim. He probably still has nightmares about former JUCO star Keith Smart, whose baseline jumper with 4 seconds left gave Indiana the 1987 national championship by one point over Boeheim's Orange. Former North Carolina star Bob McAdoo is another former junior college player who sticks out, but there haven't been many others.
Ongenaet, whose father Dirk played professionally in Belgium, was a member of the Belgian National Team and in his first season at Cuesta College became the first player in the 42-year history of the basketball program to average a double-double (10.3 points, 12.3 rebounds).
As a sophomore, Ongenaet averaged 12 points and 11.7 rebounds, and that was enough for Boeheim to take a look because center Arinze Onuaku was coming back from a knee injury and Boeheim wasn't sure if freshman Sean Williams would be ready.
``We saw a tape and thought we needed one more player and we were back and forth on it,'' Boeheim said. ``We had, at the time, what we thought were enough players, but we were a little concerned on our front line. We watched one tape of him and he really surprised me that he was that athletic for an unknown guy.
``I thought he would be something that helped us in terms of our depth,'' said Boeheim, who lost guards Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf to season-ending knee injuries. ``With everything's that happened, he stepped in and made some tremendous plays. It's nice to have one guy out there that's looking to get people the ball. You need a guy like that.''
At just 215 pounds, the 6-foot-8 Ongenaet is defying the stereotype of the typical European player by competing in the most physical conference in the country.
``I'm used to it, playing in Europe, banging against guys that were older and stronger than me,'' Ongenaet said. ``Most of the time, I was the little guy and not the strongest guy out there, so I had to hustle for every ball to get one of those defensive plays or to get a block, or a steal or a rebound. That's what I'm used to.
``A lot of people (in Europe) play hard like me, and I'm here to confirm it.''

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