By Matt Sugam
PISCATAWAY – When St. John’s visits the RAC on Wednesday night, Rutgers fans will be gazing on a familiar sight. A long, lanky big man patrolling the paint and swatting shots like few others in college basketball can.
While there will be flashbacks to Rutgers’ all-time leader in blocks, Hamady N’Diaye, this time the premier shot blocker will be wearing the opposing team’s jersey.
Much like N’Diaye early in his career, St. John’s Chris Obekpa’s game is far from polished. But the 6-foot-9, 223-pounder has an uncanny knack for blocking shots, and displaying that ability much faster the N’Diaye. The freshman currently leads the country in blocks with 4.8 per game.
“He’s a guy that takes up a lot of space and when you think you got an open look for a layup at the rim, he covers the whole rim up, so you don’t really know where he’s coming from,” senior wing Dane Miller said. “And even when you drive to the basket and think you have a chance for a layup because no one is there he might run behind you and still block it.”
However, there are a few ways to beat Obekpa.
The big men have to stay physical with him and don’t let him create space so he can anticipate the block. Guards driving the lane have to use a floater and shot fakes or kick it out to an open shooter. And if they do get to the basket, use the glass and rim as protection from the Obekpa.
And the two seniors, Miller and Austin Johnson, can think back to their freshman year when they faced N’Diaye in practice on a daily basis.
“That helps a lot because H[amady] was probably the best shot blocker in the country so you learn some stuff trying to go against him,” Miller said. “And you learn what to do against shot blockers and what not to do.”
One of those things is remaining confident. No one knows that better than Johnson, who saw his first shot of the game batted away by Obekpa, who had five blocks when Rutgers took on St. John’s two weeks ago. However, Johnson didn’t let that get to his head, hitting all five shots he took the rest of game.
“I knew he was going to get one or two of them,” Johnson said. “So I just told myself I have to keep going at him and remain confident and I’d be successful.”
But in a rematch where all four games the last three years have come down to the final possession, every block by Obekpa could have a major influence on the outcome of the game.
“Good chance it’s going to be a one possession game. It has been every other time,” Rice said, adding, “Every possession counts.”
And while Obekpa will be on the forefront of Rutgers’ minds they won’t let it completely change the way that they play.
“You just have to play really, because at the end of the day he’s still going to get three or four blocks,” Miller said. “A good shot blocker is always going to get blocks. There’s nothing you can do. You just got to understand that he’s going to be there.”