Friday, March 28, 2003

Texas-Connecticut preview

Prep rivals set to square off again

The Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO - T.J. Ford came to Texas to build a basketball tradition. Connecticut's Emeka Okafor wanted to go somewhere that already had one. The former Houston area high school rivals will meet again Friday night in the South Regional semifinals when top-seeded Texas (24-6) and fifth-seeded UConn (23-9) play in the Alamodome.

Ford got the best of Okafor in the Texas high school playoffs, taking his team to two state championships. And when college recruiters came calling, Ford cast his lot with a Texas program that had never won a national title.

"A chance to win a championship would be great," Ford said. "It would create an atmosphere and buzz around the country like a North Carolina or Duke. Texas would be one of those teams."

Okafor fled the South for the Big East and a program that's been a national power for the last decade.

"It's a championship school with a championship coach," said Okafor, who entertained offers from Vanderbilt, Rice, Georgia Tech, Arkansas and had Texas Tech's Bob Knight visit his home. "I figured, `Why not?"'

UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who won a national title in 1999, counts on the program's successful past in recruiting.

"We tell the kids that we're championship driven," Calhoun said. "You can certainly say it with a lot more conviction when you've done it."

Okafor's decision has paid off big for Connecticut, where he has emerged as defensive force.

An academic All-American with a 3.73 grade-point average in finance, Okafor averages 4.7 blocks, 15.7 points and 11 rebounds.

In a first-round win over Brigham Young, he had 20 points and seven blocks. He followed that with 18 points and 15 rebounds against Stanford.

With a school-record 288 career blocks, the sophomore was the Big East defensive player of the year. At 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, he's the kind of aggressive and athletic player who would fit perfectly into the Longhorns' lineup.

But Texas didn't pursue him because it had only two scholarships - one was promised to Chris Wright, who has yet to play because of knee injuries, and the other went to Ford.

"We probably made a mistake, but we thought we'd stick around and see if we could get T.J. Ford," Barnes joked. "Did I think he was going to be a good player? I don't think anyone knew Okafor was going to be as good as he is right now.

"I wish we could take them all. I wish we had 15 scholarships."

Ford was the biggest recruiting prize the Longhorns had ever signed. He's lived up to his billing, leading the nation in assists as a freshman and developing into one of country's best players this season.

Ford is averaging 15 points and 7.4 assists and has played his best in Texas' biggest games. He had 21 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a second-round win over Purdue and earlier this week won the Naismith Award as the best player in the country.

"Not only is he good, but he's special," Calhoun said. "He is dangerous any time he has the ball."

Ford's ability to pass around Okafor or shoot over him will be key to Texas' chances of advancing to the regional final for the first time since 1990. He has a healthy respect for his friend.

"I just hope to get the ball up before he gets a hand on it," Ford said.

Okafor will also have to fend off Texas' James Thomas, who averages 11.2 points and 11.1 rebounds.

"I like to call him a beast," Okafor said. "It will be two beasts battling."

Okafor's return to his home state means he and the Huskies will be playing what some call a home game for the Longhorns. The Texas campus in Austin is less than 80 miles from the Alamodome.

"It doesn't matter where you play, you still have to play," Ford said. "They'll have their fans here. The game is not won by the fans, it's won between the lines."

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