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October 3, 2007Florida begins the season on a quest for a three-peat, having won the past two national titles.
Connecticut is looking for a seven-peat. The Huskies have led the nation in blocks for the past six seasons.
OK, so it's a different kind of quest, but a remarkable one nonetheless.
How remarkable? Only two teams have managed to lead the nation in blocks in back-to-back seasons since the NCAA began keeping track of the stat in 1985-86 (some conferences began doing so before that). Siena pulled off the feat in 1986-87 and 1987-88, and Georgetown followed it up over the next two seasons. Nobody else has done it three times in a row. From 1991 to 2001, 11 different programs led the nation in blocks.
Consider the amount of talent that has left Connecticut early ? six players have given up eligibility to enter the NBA Draft during the streak ? and the achievement looks even more impressive.
"Jim was one of the first guys to really buy into weight training for basketball players," said Blaney, who was coach at Seton Hall from 1994-97. "Even back during his days at Northeastern (Calhoun coached there from 1972-86), he insisted that his players lift during the season. That's why his teams always get better at rebounding and blocking shots as the year goes along.
"Not too many guys were lifting year-round 20 years ago, but now everybody does it. Our guys have been buying into that for a long time."
The arrival of a little-known big man from Houston in 2001 is another major factor when it comes to UConn's success with swats. Emeka Okafor set a school record with 138 blocks as a freshman. Okafor, who wasn't heavily recruited, broke that mark with 156 the next season. As a junior, Okafor blocked 147 more shots while helping the Huskies to the 2004 national title.
"Emeka is really the guy that started it," Blaney said. "He was so good at help defense. If your guy got by you, he could pick up your man and was still able to get back in time to guard his original man. He could guard two players at one time and, quite honestly, sometimes three. He made blocking shots look so easy."
Okafor, who ranked fourth in the NBA with 2.6 bpg last season, led to Calhoun putting a bigger emphasis on shot blocking.
"Coach Calhoun has always emphasized rebounding and he had a string of long, athletic guys like Cliff Robinson and Donyell Marshall who went after shots," Blaney said. "But it wasn't until Emeka came along that we really saw the value in shot blocking and we started working on it a little more.
"The most important drill we do for that is the 'shell,' where we go half court 4-on-4. Usually, each team has two guards, a wing and a big man. We do that ? in each practice and keep score in every situation. It forces all the players to focus on defense and be competitive."
That is apparent in the post-Okafor era. In 2004-05, the first season without Okafor, four Huskies averaged at least one block a game: Josh Boone (2.9 bpg), Rudy Gay (1.9), Charlie Villanueva (1.8) and Hilton Armstrong (1.2). As a team, the Huskies averaged 8.9 blocks a game. The only team that has averaged more was the 1988-89 Georgetown squad that featured Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo at 9.1 per game.
"Coach Calhoun talks a lot about the footsteps these guys are following," Blaney said. "He'll say that Emeka did this to get where he is and (Chicago Bulls star) Ben Gordon did this to get where he's at. They are constantly being reminded of what it takes to get to the next level. It's a pretty good motivator."
Sophomore center Hasheem Thabeet, UConn's latest great shot blocker, is the one receiving those reminders now. Thabeet, a 7-foot-3 native of Tanzania, led the Big East with 3.8 bpg last season. But Blaney says it's the amount of shots Thabeet doesn't block that makes even more of an impact on defense.
"He's a natural athlete," Blaney said. "When he first got here, he hadn't lifted much. He hadn't run a lot, either. He was a soccer player in Tanzania. After a year in our program and all the training, he is really strong right now. His body is rock solid.
"The thing is he doesn't get that many opportunities to block shots. I know that sounds strange, but people really shy away and end up taking less shots around him. He probably alters and discourages more shots than he actually blocks."
With the return of a better-conditioned Thabeet and junior power forward Jeff Adrien, who averaged 1.4 bpg last season, the Huskies feel they have a good shot of being college basketball's shot-blocking king once again. Every player returns from a team that led the nation in field-goal percentage defense (37.1 percent).
"(Forwards) Gavin Edwards and Curtis Kelly are both capable of blocking shots," Blaney said. "Our wings, Marcus Johnson and Stanley Robinson, are really great athletes. We are aspiring to have the most blocks again. We want to keep the streak going."
Get the "Seven-Peat" T-shirts ready.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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