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Pitt vs. Duke: Stopping Jahlil Okafor a (nearly) impossible task

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Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt faces Duke tonight and, without a doubt, the Panthers' biggest issue on defense is finding a way to limit center 6'11" freshman center Jahlil Okafor.

One immediate issue is Okafor's bulk. We all know his 6'11" height can cause problems, but he's just bigger than Pitt's big men at 270 pounds. Pitt's tallest player, Joseph Uchebo, is 6'11" (or 6'10", depending on where you look) but weighs only about 245 pounds. The shorter Aron Phillips-Nwankwo, who's played some center for Pitt is somewhat bulky, but still only lists at 215. Derrick Randall and Mike Young, both 6'9", are about 235 to 240. Okafor is just a strong kid that can muscle opposing players around.

Short of fouling out or coming up with an injury, Okafor won't be stopped, of course. And while it's a terrible cliche, the Panthers' best hope is to contain him and limit his effectiveness.

Problem is, that won't be easy.

Okafor simply hasn't been limited too often this year. Sure, there was a 13-point, 6-rebound game against then No. 2 Wisconsin. But that's one of the few times that he's been contained, and even in that game, he was an efficient 6-8 from the field. His competition also should be noted in that game as he was up against 7'0" senior Frank Kaminsky of the Badgers, who is having a huge season in his own right, averaging 17 points and eight rebounds per contest. Safe to say, the Panthers don't have a similar player.

The freshman Duke center has piled up big game after big game, and has yet to score fewer than ten points in a contest. Even when he scores less, he comes up huge on the glass. While he had only ten points against Stanford, he pulled in a dozen boards. He had only 12 points against Wake Forest a couple of weeks ago, but added 11 rebounds.

Pitt's best strategy against him despite being undersized? Be completely physical.

The Panthers don't have a glut of big men available to pull an all out Hack-a-Shaq, but they should be looking to knock him around a bit. One of Okafor's weaknesses this season, as is the case with most big men, is his free throw shooting. His 58% accuracy from the charity stripe is an area that can help the Panthers.

This isn't a situation where Pitt should foul as soon as he touches the ball. But if he establishes position and could do some damage offensively, I'd rather Pitt make him earn two points than give them up easily. Pitt's real best strategy is to try to deny him the ball. But when that fails, they may need to foul to prevent a bucket.

One other thing that helps Pitt is the emergence of Phillips-Nwankwo. He gives the Panthers another option in the middle ... which means five more fouls to burn. The Panthers can't afford to get Young into foul trouble, obviously, but guys like Nwankwo-Phillips, Uchebo, and even little-used Randall should have all hands on deck to slow him down. Randall's played only a grand total of a single minute in the team's last four games, but I'd have him in there tonight strictly in an effort to get a big body on Okafor and foul when necessary.

The Panthers can try to get Okafor into foul trouble himself, too. That's one reason I'd be tempted to play Michael Young a little more at center on offense - he's shorter than the Duke center, but more agile than the other Pitt big men and will be the toughest for Okafor to guard. I'd go right at him and try to get a couple of quick ones against him.

That strategy might not exactly pay off. Okafor has yet to foul out of a game this season and has only picked up four fouls on two occasions. In 11 of the team's 17 games, in fact, he has had only two fouls or less. He just isn't typically drawn into foul trouble. But if Pitt doesn't try early to get a whistle or two against him, the team isn't doing its job.

In other seasons, things might be different. With a skilled center that has Okafor's size on the roster, Pitt's strategy wouldn't be the same. But on a team that often plays a center giving up at least two inches to him, the Panthers need to be smart and do what they can to counter his size.

Guarding Okafor will be a difficult task. The Panthers' best bet, though, is to avoid giving up easy buckets and send him to the line when necessary.

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