It takes time for fans to recognize an exceptional defensive player such as Connecticut sophomore Emeka Okafor. But coaches are usually quicker to take notice, and they realize that by eliminating a fair portion of each opponent's tactics, Okafor gives Connecticut a chance to slip farther along in the NCAA tournament than its No. 5 seeding suggests.
"He ends up taking the paint away," Huskies Coach Jim Calhoun said.
With his distinctive shot-blocking ability, Okafor does not allow many teams to execute the inside portion of their offense that helps make the outside shots easier. BYU already is poring over tapes and scouting reports for its first-round game with Connecticut on Thursday in Spokane, Wash., trying to develop possible counters.
Most of them probably will not work, as Okafor has led the nation in blocked shots with an average of nearly five and been among the leaders in rebounding with an average of 11.
"He's always around," junior point guard Taliek Brown said. "He's always going to be there, if the guy beats you. He's always going to be there to get the block."
Those blocks erase many of U-Conn.'s defensive lapses and allow the Huskies to extend toward the three-point arc. Okafor's presence also makes opponents more tentative than usual, either from penetration by the guards or from using the array of maneuvers down low by the front-court players that worked against everyone else.
"He can wait longer than almost anyone I've ever seen before he commits to going up for a block," said assistant George Blaney, a head coach for more than 30 years, who took over the team when Calhoun missed five games in February for prostate cancer surgery. "That timing makes him almost unparalleled. He's also smart, has a great body [at 6 feet 9 and 252 pounds] and works exceptionally hard."
Okafor is inquisitive on and off the court.
"When I fouled [during his early development in Houston], I would ask the ref what I did right and wrong," he said. "What can I do? When to put my hands up, when -- and when not -- to go for a block."
Okafor this season in the Big East conference was unique for earning first-team all-league honors, for being chosen its defensive player of the year and also winning the scholar-athlete award.
His 3.73 grade point average in finance also made Okafor a first-team academic all-American. He is a junior academically and on track to earn his degree next year, about the time the NBA may be a serious consideration.
With Okafor, fellow sophomore Ben Gordon and some swift and occasionally flashy freshmen, the Huskies are among the fastest and youngest teams in the tournament. They almost literally ran Syracuse out of Madison Square Garden in the semifinals of the conference tournament last week before falling to far more experienced Pittsburgh for the championship.
"Jim's great at challenging people, getting people to play above and beyond what they think they're capable of," Blaney said. "That's a hard thing for a coach."
That's not the case with Okafor, whose quest for improvement this season has been most evident on offense.
"He was an afterthought on offense last year, really didn't know what he was doing," Blaney said. "His improvement has been phenomenal, but he still has a long way to go."
Okafor has doubled his average point output this season, from eight to 16. He also had 20 double-doubles during the season and, with nine blocks, came close to his first triple-double during a home victory over St. John's in Calhoun's return to the sideline following his surgery.
The improvement for Okafor will be cutting down on his fouls and improving his free throw percentage. He is shooting just below 60 percent from the field and from the free throw line. Point guard Brown also makes less than 60 percent of his free throws, which poses problems for the Huskies down the stretch in close games.
Still, protecting the basket is what Okafor relishes. His career average of 4.41 blocks is better than the league record of 3.98 set by Georgetown's Patrick Ewing nearly 20 years ago. Okafor also is the only player in league history to have at least nine blocks three times. Former Seton Hall center Samuel Dalembert twice had nine.
"When [opponents] take a couple shots out of fear," Okafor said, "that makes you feel good."