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Duke’s Okafor presents big Sweet 16 challenge for Utes

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SALT LAKE CITY — A big challenge. A tall order. Call it what you will, but the Utah Utes face a tough task in defending Duke center Jahlil Okafor Friday in the NCAA Tournament. The 6-foot-11, 270-pound freshman may be the largest obstacle the Utes face in the Sweet 16 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

Okafor, who is projected by some experts to go No. 1 overall in this year's NBA draft, leads the Blue Devils with 18.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. The Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year shoots 67 percent from the field and has blocked a shot in 31 games this season.

“He’s very aggressive in the post, got a good touch, good footwork, he’s basically a complete big man down there in the block,” said Utah center Jakob Poeltl. “It’s obviously going to be tough, but we’re going to have a game plan down and we’re going to guard Duke the best we can.”

The 7-footer from Austria, who is also a freshman, is 35 pounds lighter than Okafor. Senior backup Dallin Bachynski (7-0, 265) provides more bulk and junior reserve Jeremy Olsen (6-10, 240) is another body Utah can throw at Okafor, who is a 51.6 percent foul shooter, if needed.

“It’s not our plan to foul him,” Poeltl said. “We’ll have our defense sound by Friday and we’ve just got to guard him straight up.”

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak acknowledged that simulating Okafor in practice is difficult. He said the Utes’ three big men have done their best impersonations of him, but Okafor is a 6-foot-11, 280-pound guy who “handles a basketball like a tennis ball.”

Krystkowiak noted that San Diego State’s Skylar Spencer, who is listed at 6-10 and 240 pounds, made the comment after losing to Duke on Sunday that he had never played against anybody that big.

“So it’s real formidable,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s hard and it’s going to take a heck of a focus on our part, in a lot of different ways, game-plan wise — and not continue to throw them the same pitch over and over where they’re going to be able to hit it out of the park.”

The Blue Devils, Krystkowiak added, have shooters and all the pieces around Okafor. That’s the big difference from last Saturday when the Utes faced Georgetown’s sizeable center Josh Smith (6-10, 350). He finished with eight points and six rebounds in 17 minutes, committing four fouls, in Utah’s 75-64 win.

Krystkowiak joked that he’d like to send Poeltl, Bachynski and Olsen out to defend Okafor at the same time.

“One of the advantages we have is we do have three big guys,” Krystkowiak said. “So, if we do get in a pinch then we do have a few bodies we can throw at him.”

However, Krystkowiak explained that he doesn’t know how the game will go and said he’s not anticipating anything. He’s hoping Okafor can be guarded collectively and that foul trouble is avoided.

“I’m excited for the game because he is one of the best, if not the best, big man in college basketball right now and we’re going to see what happens on Friday,” said Poeltl, who counters with averages of 9.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 69.1 percent shooting. “. . . You don’t get to play Duke every day. It’s a team, a program, with a lot of tradition. They’ve always been good. They’re very good this year. It’s going to be a fun game.”

Poeltl insists the Utes won’t be intimidated.

“It’s still basketball. Just because their name is Duke doesn’t make it a different game,” he said. “We’ve still got to play our game. We’ve got to be aggressive. We’ve got to have a game plan down and then do our best.”

Email: dirk@desnews.com

Twitter: @DirkFacer