When Emeka Okafor boarded the team bus following UConn's 76-67 win over Georgia Tech in the national championship game on April 5, the first thing he wanted to know was where his video camera was. All eyes had been fixed on the Huskies, elegant 6'9" center since the season began in November, yet in his finest hour all Okafor wanted to do was look around and appreciate the view. That such humility would emanate from a superstar was not lost on UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "He's the epitome of what we want in college athletics," Calhoun says. "I don't think you're going to see the likes of Emeka Okafor come around for a long, long time."
Okafor's three-year career at Connecticut (he will forgo his senior season and enter the NBA draft) is worth remembering, but his junior year was unforgettable. Despite being saddled with a stress fracture in his back for much of the year, Okafor averaged 17.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game. He was at his best when it mattered the most, scoring all of his game-high 18 points in the second half of UConn's comeback win over Duke in the national semifinals and finishing with 24 points and 15 rebounds against the Yellow Jackets in the championship game. Those accomplishments alone would make Okafor worthy of being named SI's Player of the Year, but of course there is one more. Okafor carries a 3.76 GPA, and next month he will receive his degree in finance, having earned it in just three years.
Okafor's performance on the season's final weekend elevated him just enough in a tight, two-way race with Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph's sensational senior point guard. Nelson's statistics and accomplishments this season were impressive: He led the Hawks (30-2) to the first undefeated regular season by any team since 1990-91, by averaging 20.6 points and 5.3 assists per game. But no player did more for his team on both ends of the floor than Okafor. One of the the Huskies' biggest weaknesses was their perimeter defense, but with Okafor manning the paint, UConn led the nation in field-goal-percentage defense (.369).
As an interior presence who demanded constant attention, Okafor enabled his freshman frontcourtmates, Josh Boone and Charlie Villanueva, to prosper inside while ensuring that sharpshooters like Rashad Anderson and Ben Gordon got clean looks on the perimeter. Okafor's selflessness inspired a team-first culture that helped the Huskies win the Big East tournament despite his missing three games with back pain and stay close with Duke while he sat on the bench for most of the first half because of foul trouble.
"To be at the point I am right now is just crazy to me," Okafor said during the Final Four. "Sometimes I'm like, Wow, I'm lucky." College basketball is equally lucky to have had a player like him.