Emeka Okafor has done pretty well on the court and exceptionally well in the classroom. The Connecticut junior was just as impressive in garnering votes for The Associated Press’ preseason All-America team.
Okafor was one vote short of being a unanimous selection Wednesday and was joined on the team by seniors Jameer Nelson of Saint Joseph’s and Rickey Paulding of Missouri and sophomores Ike Diogu of Arizona State and Raymond Felton of North Carolina.
The 6-foot-9 Okafor averaged 15.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.5 blocked shots last season for the Huskies, and is on pace to graduate with a degree in finance in just three years. He’s also on pace to become the leading shot blocker in college basketball history, having already shattered the Big East record set by Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing almost 20 years ago.
“He came equipped with one of the most unique packages that any teacher would love to have,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said of Okafor. “And that’s the ability to take a task, do it fully and beyond and then put it into a compartment and leave it alone.
“Certainly, he’s enriched our teams, our coaching staff. We’re a better university because of him.”
Nelson was second in the voting, named on 49 ballots by the 72-member national media panel that selects the weekly Top 25. Paulding received 37 votes, Diogu 34 and Felton 24.
Notre Dame’s Chris Thomas was sixth in the voting with 19, while Connecticut’s Ben Gordon had 16 and Kansas’ Wayne Simien and Syracuse’s Hakim Warrick each had 15.
Last year’s preseason All-America team was comprised of five seniors and only national player of the year David West of Xavier was on the postseason first team.
The 5-11 Nelson and teammate Delonte West are considered one of the best backcourts in the nation. He averaged 19.7 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists for the Hawks as a junior.
“In my humble opinion, we have the best player in college basketball in Jameer Nelson,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “I sent him to the registrar to try and be reclassified as a junior. That’s important because you get credit for being a hell of a coach when you have a player like that.”
Paulding, a 6-5 swingman who is a highlight-reel staple, has started for three years with the Tigers. He averaged 17.4 points and 5.5 rebounds last season with his best effort a 36-point outing in a second-round loss to Marquette in the NCAA tournament.
“We have the opportunity to do some special things here,” said Paulding, one of four starters back for the Tigers. “We have goals we still want to reach.”
The 6-8 Diogu was the Pac-10’s freshman of the year last season after averaging 19.0 points and 7.8 rebounds, but he isn’t limited to playing inside.
“If he’s not the best player in the country,” Sun Devils coach Rob Evans said, “he’s in the top three or four.
“We’ll move him outside. He can put the ball on the floor and he can do some things with it when he does put it on the floor.”
Felton averaged 12.9 points and 6.7 assists last season for the Tar Heels, but he’ll start his junior season under new coach Roy Williams.
“He brings everything,” the 6-foot point guard said of Williams. “He brings inspiration, pride, confidence. He’s a great coach, he’s a great man. I can’t wait. This is exciting to me.”
The other members of last year’s preseason All-America team were Arizona teammates Luke Walton and Jason Gardner, Kansas’ Kirk Hinrich and Alabama’s Erwin Dudley. Gardner was on the postseason second team and Hinrich was on the third team.
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