Image at Connecticut reflects well on Boone

College basketball: As a freshman, South Carroll graduate Josh Boone is reminding some of a young Emeka Okafor, now a UConn All-American.

December 13, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Every day at practice, Emeka Okafor looks into the mirror. He sees himself, or at least someone who reminds the University of Connecticut's junior center of what he was before he grew into a player many consider to be among the best in college basketball.

In the mirror, Okafor sees Josh Boone.

"We both had a lot of work to do," Okafor said recently. "We both have come a long way, and we both have a long way to go."

Boone likes to hear those comparisons, and he knows they aren't as far-fetched as some might think. While Okafor received more attention during his high school years in Houston than Boone got at South Carroll High School in Sykesville, the 6-foot-10, 230-pound center from Mount Airy has already matched Okafor in one regard - starting for the Huskies as a freshman.

With highly touted freshman Charlie Villanueva having sat out the first six games this season while the NCAA checked out his eligibility status because of trips last spring to NBA tryout camps - the 6-11 Villanueva ended up pulling his name from the draft - Boone beat out several players for the power forward spot next to Okafor.

Though Villanueva's 16-point debut in last Saturday's lopsided win over Army suggests he might be starting in the foreseeable future, Boone has done little to discourage Huskies coach Jim Calhoun.

After seven games, Boone is averaging six points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots in a little more than 22 1/2 minutes. Boone's 63 percent shooting from the field (17 of 27) leads the second-ranked Huskies.

"One of the best things that we say about him is that he's a freshman we can trust," Calhoun said last week. "He's pretty much the answer to what we need when we'll have to play bigger, stronger teams down the road."

Calhoun was talking mostly about the competition in the Big East, where there might be a few coaches who ask their assistants the same question about Boone: Did we look at him? The answer is probably no, at least not until Boone's senior year in high school.

After not making the varsity team until he was a junior, Boone played in the shadow of Marshall Strickland, a talented guard who is now a sophomore at Indiana. Boone's job then was about what it is now - get some rebounds and block some shots.

Though Boone wound up averaging 20 points the year after Strickland left for prep school - he also had 14.4 rebounds and blocked seven shots on a team that advanced to the state semifinals - it wasn't until Boone played a year at West Nottingham Academy in Cecil County that anyone noticed. Boone didn't go there to raise his grades since he had a 3.6 grade point average and a 1,280 on his SAT.

He went there to raise his game, and hopefully, his recruiting profile.

"They were calling me a late bloomer," said Boone, who was a 6-1 guard as a freshman and grew 2 inches each year he was in high school. "I thought I needed an extra year to mature basketball-wise. I needed another year to ready myself for college."

Boone more than got ready for the next level. By averaging 28 points, 16 rebounds and nearly 10 blocks a game, Boone went from being a Top 300 player recruited by mid-majors to one in the Top 100 who drew interest from several schools, UConn most prominent among them.

"I just wanted to go to a good college, I wanted to go to a place where I could develop academically and basketball-wise," said Boone, who recently turned 19. "[Coming out of high school], I didn't need to go to a huge school.

"I could have ended up at a mid-major, you never know. Wherever I went, I would have devoted myself to getting better. As long as they [his coaches] would have helped me along the way, it really wouldn't have mattered."

Boone liked the Huskies for the intensity of the practices Calhoun ran, something he was accustomed to from his high school and Amateur Athletic Union teams. What also attracted Boone to Connecticut was the opportunity to practice against Okafor every day.

"It was a huge thing, playing with Okafor," Boone said. "Even if I wasn't going to be on the court all the time with him, I would have a chance to watch him and learn from him, how to block shots, rebound, how to play offense. And also learn how to do that with a 3.8 or 3.9 GPA. He's a great role model."

And a great supporter.

After outplaying sophomores Hilton Armstrong and Marcus White during preseason workouts, Boone won a starting job. In part, it came on the recommendation of Okafor.

"I asked all the kids for a starting lineup, and Emeka and one other guy had Josh's name in there," recalled Calhoun. "Obviously, I did what Emeka said."

Calhoun was kidding, but the relationship that Boone and Okafor have forged over the past few months certainly helped in the younger player's transition to college basketball and college life in general.

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