A tall task for both sides

Monday, April 5, 2004

SAN ANTONIO -- There's no mistaking Emeka Okafor. He's the All-America center from Connecticut, the sure lottery pick in the NBA draft.

There's also no mistaking Luke Schenscher. He's the 7-foot-1 Australian with the shaggy red hair who plays center for Georgia Tech.

The gap has closed considerably between the two since Okafor was selected consensus national preseason player of the year and Schenscher was an anonymous player in the ACC.

They'll see a lot of each other in Monday night's national championship game, a battle in the middle that could decide whether Connecticut wins its second national title or Georgia Tech wins its first.

College basketball hasn't had many prominent center matchups lately, and the national title game hasn't had one between real big men since Patrick Ewing of Georgetown and Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston hooked up 20 years ago.

"We don't like to call them centers, we like to call them power players. It's kind of the upgraded word for center," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "It's one of the few games where you're going to have legitimate guys who can both put 20 on the board, double-figure rebound, both affect the other team's offense by being a defensive presence inside."

Okafor is quicker, smoother and NBA ready. Schenscher still is a work in progress, showing flashes at times while trying to overcome occasional awkwardness.

Okafor, a unanimous selection to The Associated Press' All-America team and the runner-up to Jameer Nelson of Saint Joseph's as player of the year, easily wins the numbers game.

He averages 17.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and a nation-leading 4.1 blocked shots while shooting 59.9 percent from the field. He led the country with 23 double-doubles this season.

Schenscher is averaging 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 56 percent from the field. His numbers have improved all season, and two of his most impressive games are among his last seven -- 17 points and 17 rebounds in a win over North Carolina and 19 points and 12 rebounds in the 67-65 victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday.

Okafor also had the statistical advantage when the teams met in the Preseason NIT semifinal in November, a 77-61 Georgia Tech victory. Okafor, bothered for the first time that game by back spasms that lingered into March, had nine points and 13 rebounds, while Schenscher had two points and three rebounds.

"I thought he played well against him last time," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said, referring to Schenscher. "Luke has done whatever we've asked him to do to help this team win. The last time we played him he did an outstanding defensive job on Okafor."

Both players need to avoid foul trouble, something that almost did in Okafor and the Huskies in their 79-78 comeback victory over Duke on Saturday.

Okafor played four minutes in the first half before picking up his second foul and got his third four minutes into the second. When he returned for good with 14:23 to play he dominated inside on both ends.

"This whole year we were supposed to make the Final Four. We're here and I'm on the bench," Okafor said. "I had the best seat in the house that first half and it was killing me."

When the men in striped shirts blow the whistles early in the championship game at least four people will be holding their breath, hoping the foul isn't on either big man.

"It's going to be a great matchup. He's going to have to play one of his better games," Hewitt said, referring to Schenscher. "If we can keep him out of foul trouble, it's going to be a great, great matchup."

Schenscher gave a quick scouting report on the 6-10 Okafor.

"He's just an athlete. He's big. He's strong," he said. "He's got great footwork around the basket. He's got great timing blocking shots. He's just an all-around great basketball player on both ends of the floor."

Okafor also had some kind words for Schenscher.

"He's a good 7-footer with good skills, and he's got a lot of confidence right now," Okafor said. "He's coming off a big game, 19 and 12, those are good numbers. He's going to have all that working for him."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: