Maybe it's the way he motivates. Maybe it's the way he mouths off. Either way, Connecticut point guard Khalid El-Amin finds a way to get people going.
Usually it's his team, sometimes it's not. That is the essence of El-Amin, a complex young man running a complex system.
Need a leader? A motivational speaker? An agitator and irritator? He's one and the same, sometimes all at the same time.
"He's like our Energizer bunny," teammate Richard Hamilton said of El-Amin, who will be one of the most closely watched players during college basketball's most-watched weekend. "He gets everybody involved."
El-Amin should be in his element in the Final Four, especially in the Huskies' semifinal game Saturday against Ohio State. Both teams run similar three-guard offenses in which the shooting guard is the leading scorer but the ball-handling guard for Ohio State, it's Scoonie Penn is the creator.
"My job is to control the atmosphere and point them in the right direction," El-Amin said of the Huskies (32-2), the only team besides Duke to be No. 1 ranked this season.
Sometimes, he doesn't mind pointing the way even when the situation calls more for a follower than a leader.
He proved that on his recruiting visit to UConn, one still cited by teammates as proof of his intensity or is it ego?
Upon arriving on campus, he eschewed the normal niceties campus tour, handshakes with the faculty, a nightclub visit and asked to scrimmage with the varsity players. He immediately chose up sides and directed the workout, a serious violation of protocol for a high school senior.
He has been the Huskies' unquestioned leader ever since, even if Hamilton is an All-America and forward Kevin Freeman was the Big East tournament MVP.
"He's been something very special," coach Jim Calhoun said. "For the past two years we've won 64 games and, not by accident, Khalid joined our team two years ago to make that happen. He makes us go, not only physically but psychologically. He's the guy the kids turn to for direction, sometimes for courage."
El-Amin proved that when he went 0-for-12 from the field in the West Regional final against Gonzaga, yet still had enough presence to hand out four assists, go 5-of-6 from the free throw line and get three rebounds.
"It says a lot about us that he could go 0-for-12 and we still won," Calhoun said of El-Amin, who averages 13.7 points and 3.8 assists. "It also says a lot about him."
It also says something about El-Amin that he has managed to focus enough attention and energy on basketball to succeed, even while leading an off-court life that is anything but ordinary.
He is only 19, yet has been married for three years. His wife, Jessica, recently gave birth to a son, but he also has a 2-year-old son by another woman. Still, he is highly religious; his father, Charles, is a leader in the Orthodox Muslim aith.
On the road, El-Amin is taunted not only about his uncommon background but his weight and eating habits; he is only 5-foot-10, yet weighs 200 pounds.
At Pittsburgh, he answered the home fans' game-long taunts by jumping on the scorer's table and flashing the No. 1 sign after the Huskies rallied from five points down in the final nine seconds to win. At Virginia, fans waved pizza boxes at him and asked if Pizza Hut should make an on-court delivery.
Meanwhile, Freeman is expected to play Saturday despite an ear infection that wasn't serious enough to keep him off the team plane Wednesday night. The Huskies worked out Thursday at a community college and will practice Friday at Tropicana Field.
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