EVANSTON – Right back at you, Northwestern.
With 10:07 remaining in the first half of Saturday’s game in Evanston, Michigan leading 11-9, Northwestern junior Jason Okrzesik beat the Wolverine defense for what looked like a game-tying lay-up. But freshman DeShawn Sims, jumping so high in the air that his forearm touched the ball, swatted the attempt far into the Wildcat student section.
“I think I blocked it with my wrist, because I swung hard at it,” Sims said. “If I didn’t get the ball, and if I had got him, I think I would have got ejected.”
Freshman Ekpe Udoh had a different take on the block:
“He must have got that from me.”
While it might seem surprising for a freshman to claim credit for teaching a fellow freshman how to block shots, in this case it’s easy to believe.
Udoh seems to have surpassed senior Brent Petway as the team’s best swatter. Udoh ranks second in the conference (Indiana’s D.J. White), averaging 2.44 blocks per game. Udoh’s average was helped by his performance against Army, when he recorded nine rejections (second all-time for Michigan basketball).
“I’ve been doing it all my life, really,” Udoh said. “It’s just natural (to block shots) now.”
Petway and fellow senior Courtney Sims are not far behind Udoh, ranking fifth and sixth in the conference, respectively.
With four big men contributing to the team’s rejection infatuation, it’s no surprise that Michigan currently leads the Big Ten in blocked shots.
It doesn’t have much competition, either. Minnesota averages fewer than six blocks per game to take second place. Greg Oden’s Ohio State squad is third.
At Central Street on the Northwestern campus, the Wolverines held yet another block party this past Saturday.
Michigan recorded six swats of Wildcat shots, just one short of its conference-leading average of seven per contest.
“They blocked a bunch of shots that were lay-ups, that were executed pretty well,” Northwestern coach Bruce Carmody said. “It’s major. Five or six times in the second half we had lay-ups, and they took them away from us, and that’s huge.”
And even when Michigan wasn’t FedEx-ing the Wildcat attempts right back to them, the threat of rejection still proved costly. Northwestern missed three easy lay-ups in the final four minutes of a game that was within reach until the closing seconds.
“Getting those blocks early, it put it in their heads that they have to get (their shots) off quicker,” Petway said. “Sometimes when you rush shots, you leave it short, and I think that’s what happened.”
Michigan’s guards like to pressure the opposing ball-handler, and having shot-blockers behind them allows them to be even more aggressive and force more turnovers.
“It gives us more room for error, so we can get up and pressure the ball,” senior guard Dion Harris said. “If a guy happens to blow by us, then we know we have those guys on the back line to erase our mistake. I get more confidence in guarding the ball when I know I have my guys back there, and they’re talking to me, they’re saying ‘Send him down here.’ “
So the Michigan big men can send it right back.