Akunne and McLimans impress off the bench

Alden Reiss/Daily
Junior guard Eso Akunne is 5-for-5 shooting this season. Buy this photo

By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 5, 2011

Aside from adding a couple of freshmen, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s bench is no different from last year. Yet, eight games into the season, it’s looking like the players coming off of it could be.

Junior guard Eso Akunne and junior forward Blake McLimans have been seeing increased minutes lately and they’ve made the most of their time on the court.

Neither has missed a shot this season, and they’ve given Michigan coach John Beilein more efficiency in their playing time than last year’s regulars — senior guard Stu Douglass and junior guard Matt Vogrich. Akunne and McLimans are a combined 8-for-8 from the field, and Douglass and Vogrich are shooting a combined 36 percent from the field and 23 percent on 3-pointers.

Akunne has seen time in all but two games and has sunk all five of his shots, three of which have been 3-pointers. In 12 minutes in Michigan’s 76-66 win over Iowa State on Saturday, Akunne buried a 3-pointer after coming off a ball screen and taking a handoff from McLimans in the first half. He later drained a jump shot with five minutes remaining in the second half.

“His game has matured so much from coming in from high school as far as what’s going on on that floor,” Beilein said. “He can make shots.

“We have a tough time guarding him (in practice). We say he puts a guy into a blender, you know, like a milkshake. He starts shaking and baking and all of a sudden he gets an open shot. He’s good.”

McLimans was also effective in his six minutes of play. After the assist to Akunne, he scored on a pick-and-roll layup from sophomore forward Tim Hardaway Jr. and nailed a 3-pointer with 22 seconds left in the first half.

And in garbage time in a 70-58 loss to Virginia on Tuesday, McLimans made a 3-pointer, pulled down a rebound and blocked a shot.

“I think Blake definitely gets his confidence just from the way he plays in practice,” Akunne said. “Blake is a really good shooter. He’s worked really hard and we each believe in ourselves and know that we can help the team when we get in the game.”

Akunne and McLimans are traditionally on the “maize” team in practice, which scrimmages against the “blues,” which consist of starters. Beilein said that the games are competitive everyday, thanks in part to Akunne and McLimans.

“If he’s wide open, he’s going to knock it down,” Hardaway Jr. said of Akunne. “He kills us in practice for the scout team. Him working so hard since he’s been here to now and working on his game all through the summer is paying off right now.”

Akunne is a versatile guard and has spelled freshman point guard Trey Burke, while also seeing time as a 2-guard. He’s only turned the ball over once in 32 minutes.

“The first exhibition, I didn’t even (get in),” Akunne said. “But I’ve always had the approach of staying ready in case coach calls. I just need to continue to gain his trust and play solid when I’m out there.

“This year I’ve matured a little bit, being older, understanding how important each possession is. Being better on defense has helped too.”

McLimans can see minutes at center like he did on Saturday when he replaced redshirt sophomore Jordan Morgan, or on the wing as he did on Tuesday.

“They’d have moments like this (in the past), but there wasn’t consistency to it,” Beilein said. “Eso now has showed us consistency where that’s why he’s been coming off the bench every game. Blake hasn’t showed us the same consistency, but I’d say his last couple weeks have been very strong.”

What remains to be seen is if Akunne and McLimans’s strong play in limited minutes is enough to spell Douglass and Vogrich for longer periods of time.

“A smart coach would do that, I think,” Beilein said.

NOTES: Sophomore center Jon Horford has an injured foot and is in a walking boot. He was held scoreless in 10 minutes on Saturday.

“We’re trying to limit his minutes while he gets better,” Beilein said. “But he does have a little stress in his one foot and we're trying to gauge that before we see where he can go.”