Okafor ready for 1st North Carolina-Duke game

Freshman center says he's ready to experience college basketball's best rivalry

Jahlil Okafor has made it look easy for No. 4 Duke.

The freshman big man is preparing for his first taste of college basketball's fiercest rivalry Wednesday night when the Blue Devils host No. 15 North Carolina — a matchup Okafor called "one of the games I marked on my calendar" when he chose Duke.

A parade of talented freshmen has run through Duke (22-3, 9-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) in the past five seasons, from Kyrie Irving to Jabari Parker.

Okafor has a case to be the best of the bunch.

He leads the Blue Devils in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage, with both his scoring average of 18.2 points and his shooting percentage of 66.5 percent tops in the ACC. No freshman has ever led a Duke team in all three categories.

"When a team has a game plan just to stop him, and they're double-teaming him," fellow freshman Tyus Jones said Tuesday, "it's crazy to see, but he does it night in and night out."

The 6-foot-11, 270-pounder has proven to be such a matchup problem for opponents that they have resorted to brute force in their efforts to try to slow him down.

"I knew the game would be a lot more physical than it was in high school," Okafor said, "but it was hard for me to imagine just how physical it was going to be."

Coach Mike Krzyzewski added that "it's amazing how good a job he's done on defense as a result of the physical play he has (faced) on the offensive end."

Okafor has scored in double figures in all 25 games of his college career. He's posted nine double-doubles and reached the 20-point mark 10 times.

His unique blend of skills makes him tough to handle. He's talented enough in the post to beat a single defender, yet is a slick enough ball handler to pass out of double teams.

"You have to make some allowances for him," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "Because they can score inside and they've got terrific 3-point shooters, and that may make (the entire Duke team) more difficult to guard than anybody. ... The challenges they pose to you on the offensive end, trying to stop them, is really unlimited."

The Tar Heels figure to send either Kennedy Meeks or Brice Johnson — or both — at Okafor, who averages an ACC-best 4.04 offensive rebounds and his 9.3 total rebounds ranks fourth in the league.

North Carolina is the league's best team on the glass, averaging 42.3 rebounds and leading the conference in both offensive (15.0) and defensive (27.3) rebounds.

"It's definitely going to be a hard-fought battle," Okafor said. "They have an amazing front line, as do we."

While Okafor and the Blue Devils are surging, having won five straight, the Tar Heels are limping with losses in three of their past four games.

During that stretch, they blew an 18-point second-half lead in an overtime loss at Louisville, fell at home to No. 2 Virginia and allowed Pittsburgh to shoot 65 percent in last weekend's loss.

"We're not really all the way down to shambles or anything, so I don't know if resurrect is the appropriate term," guard Marcus Paige said. "These past four games, it's pretty obvious we've struggled. So this is a great opportunity to get a confidence-booster and kind of give us some momentum going forward. I think we'll still be OK, regardless of what happens."


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