Michigan coach John Beilein warned everyone this season would feature plenty of growing pains as he attempted to mold the Wolverine program to his coaching style.
But over the past few weeks, the reality of what has become a forgettable season has finally hit the Wolverines square in the jaw. The Maize and Blue has dropped nine of its past 11 games after starting the season 2-0.
It’s become clear that players are growing frustrated with the notion of taking their lumps this season in hopes of a better future. One player who seems most distraught over the mounting defeats is sophomore Ekpe Udoh.
“You really can’t take any more moral victories,” Udoh said after a 70-54 loss to Wisconsin Wednesday. “You have to stop that. This is a new year and you can’t bring that into the new year. We just have to ante up and become men.”
Udoh and the Wolverines (0-1 Big Ten, 4-9 overall) will get another chance to start fresh tomorrow when they travel to West Lafayette to face Purdue (9-4).
But the Edmond, Okla., native hasn’t allowed his disappointment to effect his play, especially defensively. Udoh leads the Big Ten in blocks with 38 through 13 games. And after averaging four blocks per 40 minutes a season ago, Udoh already ranks ninth all-time in blocked shots at Michigan (105).
Those stats are even more impressive considering Udoh was not a regular starter until the Dec. 8 game at Duke. As a result, opponents and coaches are starting to take notice.
“The one thing we’d like to do is establish a low-post presence regardless of who we’re playing,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter during his weekly teleconference. “That being said, Udoh is one of the leading shot blockers in the country. He does a very good job of patrolling their defense and helping them out.”
Unlike other prolific shot blockers, who rely largely on athleticism and jumping ability, Udoh’s talent stems from his impeccable timing and 7-foot-3 wing span. His propensity for blocking shots has not affected his playing time, either. Udoh has stayed out of foul trouble, while contesting most shots at the rim.
Despite his length, the sophomore is still underweight in the paint. Listed generously at just 230 pounds, Udoh is usually 30-to-40 pounds lighter than opposing centers.
UCLA took advantage of this in a big way during its Dec. 22 win over Michigan, having a field day in the interior. Bruin freshman Kevin Love tallied 17 points and 16 rebounds, while power forward Luc Ri Mbah a Moute had 12 points and 13 rebounds.
On Wednesday, Wisconsin followed the same script, outrebounding the Wolverines by 10 and getting several easy putback baskets from freshman Jon Leuer and junior Marcus Landry.
Udoh’s size has given him trouble establishing offensive position in the post, too. Part of the problem is the team’s slow adjustment to Beilein’s complicated offense. Players are still uncertain when to pass and when to shoot, leading to missed opportunities.
Against the Badgers, Udoh was able to establish position in the paint, but the Wolverines’ guards couldn’t or wouldn’t pass him the ball. As a result, Udoh attempted just two shots.
“I think too many times guys just don’t know if they should score or not or if they should run the offense,” senior Ron Coleman said.
Blocked shot after blocked shot without any sort of reward on the offensive end? You’d be frustrated too.
Michigan at Purdue
Matchup: Purdue 9-4; Michigan 4-9
When: Tomorrow, 2 P.M.
Where: Mackey Arena