He has improved his scoring, he's got really good hands, good touch around the basket. Other than that it's just maturity – physical and mental – I don't know if there's a better big man in the country than Emeka Okafor.
He wasn't considered the top big man in his class in high school, and that was a pretty good big man class - a class in which four guys went to the NBA. He didn't maybe show all the things he's doing now and that's part of recruiting. When do you see him and where do you see him? Coach Calhoun is a very fortunate man to have him as his starting center.
Okafor blocks about five shots a game, but what about the other shots, that he misdirects?
That's probably as important as the shots he does block. Guys will go in with one eye on the rim and one eye on Emeka. With any shot blocker, that's the intimidation factor that you've got to erase from your minds.
How have you assessed Byron Sanders' play in Sean May's absence?
He's filled in very well. I think Byron is a very tough kid, very conscientous kid – by that I mean he wants to do the right thing, reads his scouting report and applies that to the game the best he can. He plays extrememly hard and he'll just do whatever it takes for the team to win. He's a guy who will embrace his role and he's really blossoming as a player. It's fun to see and hopefully whenever Sean gets back, whether it's this year or next year … the silver lining to Sean's injury is that Byron has really gotten an opportunity to develop along with Damion Grant.
Can you talk about how the team started off so strong and then has gone 5-5 since?
You want to win every game, but when we won the Preseason NIT beating Kansas and Stanford, people who had us rated as the seventh best team in the ACC suddenly had us going to the Final Four. A lot of college basketball and athletics is based on matchups – and you match up better with some teams than others. And we haven't matchup up well in the past against big, physical teams – Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia, Clemson – big powerful teams. Yeah we got out of the gates real well, Sean May goes down with an injury to make us an even smaller team and then we face those big teams … but a lot of people are going to lose at Illinois, a lot of people are going to lose at Kentucky – and a lot of people are going to lose at Miami. Heck, Miami almost beat Connecticut in Connecticut. You're talking about a very young team taking on the fourth-toughest schedule in the entire country. Our RPI is 19th, which may not mean much to you all, but it shows we played a tough schedule and have endured it fairly well.
Melvin Scott appears to have accepted his role – can you discuss how he's come along?
It was hard for him at first. Melvin loves to play, just like any college basketball player, and wants to play 30 minutes. We've talked about the importance of his role, the ability to score and shoot, his defense, he's been a point guard for us at times (we don't beat Kansas without Melvin's play at the point). He's been invaluable to us, and although people might not like their roles, you still have to accept them and play them for the best interest of the team. And on a daily basis try to improve to increase your role at times. But his role is vital to our team – instant scoring, shooting and our defense maybe even improves when he's in the game.
UConn has the inside option in Okafor, but they've been shooting the three much better this year …
That's one of the reasons they're one of the best teams in the country – because they have an inside presence and then they have some of the best shooters in the country – some of their shooting percentages from three are ridiculous. It really makes for a challenging opponent.
Before Sean's injury you guys were shooting 45% from the field, and afterwards you're making only about 37%. To what do you attribute that?
I think that with Sean inside, he would get us a lot of easy baskets because of his ability to score inside and get putbacks off offensive rebounds. And he was such a good passer that he'd find the open man for a good shot.
Talk about the evolution of your young team and how they've handled this season –
Some teams wouldn't be able to handle that success, but I think they have. There have been times when you feel good about yourselves and mentally slip and that's going to happen to any team, though more to a younger team. I think at times we got a little too comfortable, but as a coach that's a battle that I talk about all the time. But overall these kids have done a great job and done everything I've asked of them. I thought we played extremely hard against Clemson and in the second half against Virginia. Our kids are a real competitive group.
On the development of the freshmen –
Sean's intelligence and feel of the game – his touch, his hands – is really missed by our team. Byron's stepped up tremendously as his backup, a great defensive player who plays extremely hard. Grant has gotten an opportunity to play more, and as long as he's healthy, he's going to help us and he's grown as a player and his confidence has gone through the roof of late. Noel is a terrific talent who needs to believe in himself like the coaches believe in him. He's a very talented kid and the more he gets comfortable the better he'll be. McCants is one of the more gifted players I've ever had the pleasure of coaching – he scores in bunching, is shooting great from three, a very poised player in big games. Felton's getting better and better every day as he gets more comfortable with what we're trying to do, understanding the position in college. Great competitor, loves the game and you have to beg him to get off the floor in practice.
You spoke of the importance of matchups – what are the matchups for your team against UConn?
They like to play at high speeds and are as fast a team as I've seen since Kansas in getting up and down the floor. What impresses me is their assist to turnover ratio – and that's handling the ball at high speeds. Every guy on the floor can run, so it'll make for a challenging matchup for us. Pretty much every wing they have can break you down off the dribble or shoot, and then they have size in the middle.
Will their team speed change the minutes for each player in the rotation?
With TV timeouts being the way they are, you have time to get your breath, so I don't think it's as big an issue … and our guys are in good shape. And I'm confident in our bench. We've developed some depth too and I'm not afraid to go to our bench.
UConn is a young team coming into a hostile environment in Chapel Hill …
They may be considered a young team … but you want to talk about young? Try starting three freshman and two sophomores. … They're more experienced than their grades indicate …
How's Damion's ankle injury?
Damion's knees are always an issue up to this point, but he did role his ankle in the last game, did not practice yesterday and we'll see what he can do today.