SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Kris Joseph leans forward with his right leg on a stool in front of his Carrier Dome locker, a bright red Montreal Canadiens cap pulled tightly over his head, and smiles at the thought of his hometown hockey team.
"I wear the gear, you know, to represent Montreal and Canada," said Joseph, born and raised not far from the old Forum where the Canadiens won most of their 24 Stanley Cups.
Then Joseph utters words that would make a Habs fan shudder.
"I know there's a puck," he said. "What's it, seven guys on each side, maybe? That's all I know about hockey, really."
In the scheme of things, that's OK because Joseph's game is basketball, and he's played it pretty darn well for four seasons at Syracuse. As the Orange (31-2), the East's top seed of the NCAA tournament, prepare to face 16th-seeded UNC Asheville (24-9) on Thursday in Pittsburgh, coach Jim Boeheim will look to Joseph to help set the tone for his team, ranked second in the nation and a fixture in the top 5 all season.
Joseph, a 6-foot-7 small forward, leads Syracuse in scoring, averaging 13.8 points (on fewer than 11 shots per game) and nearly five rebounds, and is tied for second on the team in steals with guard Scoop Jardine (46).
More importantly, Joseph says he's back at full strength after kicking a 102-degree fever that adversely affected his performance last week in the Big East tournament. He appeared sluggish in going 3 for 14 for just 19 points, but still played all but 9 minutes in two games.
"We need him to be aggressive and to be there for us," said Boeheim, 45-27 in 28 previous trips to the NCAA tournament during his 36 years at the helm. "He's huge. He's the guy that's got to be there."
Joseph's journey to this juncture began on the streets of Montreal, where he followed the lead of his lanky older brother, Maurice. They played a little street hockey, but that wasn't the game of choice.
"In my household, there was always basketball," Kris said. "I was always running behind him (Maurice) like a shadow. I just kind of did what he did. He just liked basketball over every other sport. Ever since then, I always wanted to play ball."
When there was no basketball net to hone their skills, the brothers often improvised, using garbage cans or clothes baskets to shoot at. And Maurice was sort of a basketball bully, as often is the wont of older brothers, never showing much mercy when the two dueled one-on-one in the park, be it day or night, summer or winter.
Maurice, a talented 6-foot-4 guard, was Canada's national player of the year in 2005 and good enough to earn a scholarship to Michigan State (he later transferred to Vermont). Kris morphed from a pudgy, 5-foot-7 point guard who once wasn't good enough to make a youth team into a sleek forward with aspirations to follow in his brother's footsteps.
Henry Wong, a youth basketball coach in Montreal who tutored the Joseph brothers, knew the athletic director at Archbishop Carroll High in Washington, D.C. Wong figured it would be a perfect fit for Kris to improve his skills and get noticed. Joseph's mom, Eartha Rigsby, nixed the idea at first, then relented after a year.
Kris obtained a student visa, met with a host family, and transferred for a two-year stint. He averaged nearly 19 points in 2006-07 and as a senior, averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds.
"It was really beneficial," Joseph said. "It gave me a chance to be seen more nationwide as opposed to just Canada. It helped me showcase my talents and got me a few scholarship offers."
Recruited by former Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy, Joseph had to make a big adjustment when he enrolled for the 2008-09 season. A raw talent, Joseph appeared in 24 of 34 games, logging double-digit minutes 19 times, and averaged 3.4 points, but he had to bide his time playing behind upperclassmen Paul Harris and junior college transfer Kristof Ongenaet.
An ill-advised shot against West Virginia led to diminished playing time over the final 12 games of Joseph's rookie season — he didn't play more than 5 minutes in seven of those games — and he followed Boeheim's advice at season's end. A diet change and increased intensity in his offseason workouts improved his stamina, and Joseph came back and averaged nearly 11 points off the bench as a sophomore to earn the Big East's Sixth Man Award.
Last year, Joseph started every game and averaged 14.3 points while improving his long-range shooting, hitting 45 of 123 (36.6 percent) from beyond the arc. As a senior, Joseph leads the Orange with 50 3-pointers — he's shooting 36.2 percent from behind the arc — and has converted 102 of 138 free throws (73.9 percent) while averaging a team-high 31.6 minutes.
Though Joseph hit six 3-pointers for 29 points — both career highs — in an overtime win over Georgetown last month, he and his teammates have relished sharing the ball. If his shots aren't there, he's usually not taking them.
"With the team that we have, I don't have to come out here and average 20 points a game because we have scoring coming from so many different places," Joseph said. "I'm doing well, I think, in my eyes. It's been working out for the team's sake."
When he's on his game, Joseph is putting the ball on the floor, driving to the basket, and getting to the foul line. That's what Boeheim and his staff are hoping for as the Orange chase a second national championship to go with the 2003 title won in New Orleans, site of this year's Final Four.
"He's really the key to us taking it to that elite level," said assistant coach Adrian Autry, who works with the team's forwards. "When he's really good, we're very tough to beat. He just adds that other dimension that a lot of teams don't have.
"He's just really kind of going about his business and being that quiet leader and being someone that you depend on. He's done a good job of making big shots when we've needed them."
Joseph is pursuing a child and family studies degree at Syracuse and traces his interest in kids to having been an uncle since the age of 7.
"I had my niece and a lot of times it would be me and her in the house playing and watching cartoons together," Joseph said. "I think that's where it began, just me and my niece in a room."Comment on this story
So it's no surprise that Joseph's effervescent smile is on full display every time he strolls into the university's Bernice M. Wright Child Development Laboratory School on campus as part of an internship. That room in Montreal has been replaced by Penny Feeney's Yellow Room, where the 3- and 4-year-olds call Joseph "Mr. Basketball Man," a fitting moniker for a first-team All-Big East selection and finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year Award.
"Oh my gosh, I feel like we're so lucky to have Kris," Feeney said.
Ditto for his head coach.