Duke’s Jahlil Okafor poses a huge problem for UConn

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Jahlil Okafor was in the middle of a historic night. By halftime against Elon he already had a double-double and his teammates wanted him to match it.

“My teammates were in my ear, telling me they wanted me to be dominating,” Okafor said after Duke’s victory Monday night. “They wanted me to be put up big numbers. That really gave me a lot of confidence.”

Okafor finished with 20 points and 25 rebounds and fans at Cameron were singing happy birthday as he celebrated his 19th. He was the first Duke player to get 20 points and rebounds in a game since Elton Brand in 1998.

“He’s amazing, his agility at that size is unbelievable,” teammate Amile Jefferson said after the game. “So he’s able to find balls and go get it at the highest point, over guys pushing him. He has great hands to pull them in. … The scary part is, he can play better.”

Okafor, a 6-foot-11 center from Chicago, is one of four freshman who make up Duke’s top-rated recruiting class, only a part of the scary array of talent that awaits UConn Thursday at the Izod Center (8 p.m., ESPN).

But he is a big part of the picture for Duke (9-0), No. 2 in the country.

“He’s a force to be reckoned with in the college game,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “And when he gets to the pros he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with, too. Because it seems like he loves the game and it seems like he loves to get better. It’s somebody we’re going to have to pay quite a lot of attention to, with details. It just can’t be Amida [Brimah] guarding him, it’s got to be everybody on the court.”

The Huskies recruited Okafor, a distant cousin of former UConn Academic All-American Emeka Okafor. But he chose Duke, joining guards Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen and forward Justise Winslow to form the newest core of a program that, because of one-and-dones, has to reload every year.

And Jahlil Okafor is not likely to be around long, either. He has been projected as the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft, and as always there has been talk of teams tanking to get a shot at him. His athletic ability was on display against Elon, which gave a sluggish Duke team a hard time.

“He covered up for a lot,” coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters after the game. “It’s like sweeping dirt under the rug, man, the dirt is still there. But he’s a big rug.”

At one point Okafor made a steal and went coast-to-coast to score.

“He can run the court,” Ollie said. “He’s got soft hands, he catches everything. Outstanding rebounder. Outstanding skill, can go over both shoulders, pivot in the post with both pivots. I can go on and on. He’s a great kid, he seems like a great teammate, a great person. He’s the complete package.”

UConn’s Ryan Boatright, from outside Chicago, has played pickup ball with Okafor during summer visits, so he has a feel of what UConn faces.

“He moves like a guard, man,” Boatright said. “He’s got real good feet, he has a high basketball IQ, he has a face-up game, a back-to-the-basket game. He’s a great player. He works extremely hard and he understands the game. Any time a big guy like that has great feet like that, he’s pretty hard to stop.”

Though it will take a collective effort to contain Okafor, the spotlight will be on Brimah, a 7-foot sophomore who also comes off a career game with 40 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks against Coppin State. Certainly, if Brimah holds his own against Okafor, it will not only give UConn a chance to win, but boost his NBA stock, with a dozen or so scouts likely watching.

“I’ve got to get the first punch in,” Brimah said. “I just have to make sure I do my work early. I’ve got to run the floor. … It’s an opportunity for our whole team.”

Duke is 20-1 in this building, formerly known as the Brendan Byrne Arena, one of those wins came against UConn in overtime in the Regional Final in 1990 on Christian Laettner’s shot. This game does not have that magnitude, but for UConn (4-3), it’s an opportunity, and Ollie has told his players he wants them to seize it.

UConn is close to complete for this game, with Boatright and Rodney Purvis moving at nearly full speed after playing through ankle injuries, and the possibility of Omar Calhoun returning from his knee injury after six weeks. The Huskies, who lost in the final seconds to Texas on Nov. 30, will be fighting for a signature win that would resonate come tournament time.

“You work hard all your life to get to college so you can play in games like this,” Boatright said.

Source: MSN Sports

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