He is Akeem Abdul Olajuwon, a 7-foot Nigerian center who speaks three languages, blocks 146 shots, eats jelly beans and lives deep in the heart of Texas.

Sure, University of Houston forward Larry Micheaux's slam dunks are pretty and forward Clyde Drexler's powerful drives are sweet, but if you want to discover the most wonderfully intimidating force behind the No. 1 ranked Cougars' 28-2 record and current 23-game winning streak, just look to the middle of the key.

And duck.

"Akeem can really be awesome some day," says Drexler. "Wait a minute. He already is now."

Friday night, Houston will play Memphis State (23-7) in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal here at Kemper Arena (WDVM-TV-9, 10:40). At 8:10, Villanova (23-7) will play Iowa (21-9) in the other Midwest semifinal.

While some of the banter here concerns the battle between Villanova's two big men, John Pinone and Ed Pinckney, and Iowa's two sophomore silos, Greg Stokes and Michael Payne, there is always talk of how many blocks Olajuwon might have.

First, inspect his background: Olajuwon, 20, has only been playing basketball for four years, spending the first two years with the Nigerian national team.

Then, two years ago, the coach of the Central African Republic team, who is a friend of Houston Coach Guy Lewis, recommended that Olajuwon visit Houston. With money given to him by his father, a cement dealer, Olajuwon came.

And the rest has been shot-blocking history. This season, Olajuwon averaged 13 points, 11 rebounds and nearly five blocked shots per game. Three times, Olajuwon has blocked 10 or 11 shots in one game this year.

Furthermore, all of these numbers are enhanced from his freshman year. Still relatively new to the game, Olajuwon commits foolish fouls, goaltends and travels too often.

The key word here, though, is "development." As he improves, some Houstonians are even comparing Olajuwon to a former University of Houston star, Elvin Hayes.

"I don't compare Akeem with anyone," says Lewis. "He has made quite a development this year. He is not fouling out as much (four times in 30 games). He's rebounding better and he's learned that the altered shot is as valuable as the blocked shot."

Still, the blocked shot doesn't hurt. In January, his block helped Houston defeat Southwest Lousiana, 79-78, in Houston. That's when Olajuwon deflected George Almones' 16-foot jumper in the final seconds.

"I just remember some giant taking about two large steps from underneath the basket to come out and block the shot from around the T-spot (free throw line)," Almones said over the telephone today. "The next day at practice I went out to the same spot and took the same shot 15 times. I made every one of them."

Olajuwon did not attend today's press conference, a Houston official said, because he is ill at ease with all of the television lights.

"Akeem the Dream", as he is known, is a captivating sort. He speaks with a thick British accent whether he speaks English, French or three different Nigerian dialects.

"I'm very, very happy here," Olajuwon said earlier this year. "At first, I was homesick, but I don't think about it anymore. I plan on spending the rest of my life in Houston, or at least in America."

Mention his name and the Cougars all have a story and a smile. Sophomore guard Reid Gettys says, "Akeem has matured 200 percent over the two years he's been here. He's become self-confident."

It didn't used to be that way, players say. Olajuwon used to just sit back and watch, learning customs and such. One bit of knowledge apparently came later this season to Olajuwon than to most Cougars.

"After the third game of the year," said Drexler, who averages a cool 17.4 points per game, "Akeem came up to me and said 'You know, we're pretty good.' And I told him, 'You mean you're just realizing that now?' "