One Step Forward Two Steps Back

Over recent history Michigan basketball has been so close to getting over the hump time and time again until something sets the program back again. Whether it is decommits from Joe Crawford and Al Horford, the injuries and suspensions following the NIT Championship, losing at home to Indiana and to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament after a huge win over Illinois to fall short of the NCAAs, or Courtney and Dion’s collapse against Ohio State. It’s hard to deny that Michigan has been close more than once. You have to wonder when we can just catch a break.

Last season was undeniably awful but this coming year on paper looked like it would be a huge improvement over last year’s debacle. Losing Ekpe puts a considerable dent in next year’s chances of major improvement that I think many people take for granted. Sure Ekpe only averaged 6 points and 5 rebounds (although 6ppg was good for 3rd on the team) but his contribution to this team was anchoring the defense. Michigan struggled mightily defensively all year. Michigan opponents shot 44.8% from the field (3rd worst in the Big Ten) while giving up 67.6 points per game (also 3rd worst in the Big Ten). Ekpe was Big Ten all-defense and led the Big Ten in blocks and should have contended for the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in my opinion. Taking Ekpe off of an already poor defensive team without adding anyone who is considered an above average defender or even athlete. This is definitely the patented Michigan basketball step back.

Who fills in?

Any talk of Ben Cronin redshirting is thrown out the door now. I don’t see a way to deal with Ekpe’s departure without Cronin playing solid minutes. Gibson will start at the 5 I would assume and he is a major decline in defensive ability from Ekpe. I seem to have reoccurring nightmares of uncontested layups with Gibson around the rim. Cronin put up huge block and rebound numbers in high school but it was seemingly against kids 6 inches shorter than him most of the time. The question is whether Beilein experiments by going small and playing a line up with a guy like DeShawn playing the 5. Teams like Penn State play lineups like this but I don’t see how Michigan can compete with the Ohio States (Mullens) or Michigan States of the conference who have legit big men.

I think we will see a heavy dose of the 1-3-1 next year in hopes to disguise our lack of size and interior defense but that means we will have to learn to play it this off season. The “1-3-1” they played this year won’t cut it if it becomes the main defense.

I think Gibson certainly has the potential to be an upgrade on the offensive side of the ball over Ekpe but he was really cold to end last year. You have to think he at least hit threes in practice though because Michigan ran tons of out of bounds plays to Gibson for three point looks, they just stopped falling down the stretch. If there is one player on the team that needs a good old Barwis workout though it is Zack Gibson. I don’t think Gibson has nearly the strength to bang in the post as a starter in the Big Ten.

Gibson’s Season Three Point Percentage by Game in 07/08:

The final issue in regards to next year is that there is no depth in the post.

PF: DeShawn Sims (6-8), Anthony Wright (6-6)
C: Zack Gibson (6-10), Ben Cronin (7-1)

Any injuries to big men and we are just in a scary situation honestly. It has to be noted that this year Michigan made it through the season with a similar depth situation and managed to escape any injuries to their big men.

Overall next year we have gone from having a proven starter at the five to having a backup starting and relying on a potential walk on to be a every day player.

Why did he leave?

There was a lot of talk about Ekpe leaving last spring during the coaching change. I think he was frustrated with the way the search was handled for one thing and I am sure he did not feel that he was a fit for Beilein’s offense. I give credit to Ekpe for sticking it out and giving it a try this year instead of jumping ship last year. That being said this year did not go well for Ekpe:

  • The team lost a lot of games, that has to be hard on anyone.
  • Ekpe did not get a lot of post touches. Sure his offensive game isn’t the best but this team was so anemic offensively that it would have made a lot more sense to go to the post.
  • Beilein himself said that he wasn’t comfortable working with Ekpe and that he was trying to learn new ways to get him involved.

Those are just a few of the reasons I think that played into Ekpe’s decision. The NBA card has been played a lot and maybe he has a shot at the NBA and maybe he doesn’t but is it wrong to transfer somewhere that he thinks will help him develop as a player? I’m not ready to throw Ekpe under the bus for being delusional or a quitter and I think I will still


Beilein is definitely in a bind, it’s pretty much too late to land a 2008 big man recruit unless Beilein has his eye on a Euro player or someone completely under the radar. I also don’t think it would make sense to take a marginal kid who won’t be a contributor because of limited scholarships in the future. Some names that were thrown around are off the board as soon as they showed up: Miles Plumlee is “following” his younger brother to Duke and Nikola Kecman is going to Ohio State. Larry Wright’s name was thrown around but I don’t think he really helps the situation because he can’t play this year and is a shoot first point guard (not to mention Darius Morris is a 4 year guy who is high on U-M). This means there will probably be another slot for the 2009 recruiting class (updated scholarship breakdown). Andy Brown and Darius Morris are clearly the top targets on the board (along with already committed Jordan Morgan) but now we can add one more. A lot depends on Ben Cronin, he and Jordan Morgan could possibly man the 5 position for future and reduce the need for another big man. The 09 season would have been Ekpe’s senior season so the effect of Ekpe’s departure probably has much less on the 2009 class and further in the future.

Overall some might say I am overrating Ekpe’s departure but I think that it is a very real concern for next year. I have heard positive things about Cronin and think that he can be a contributor down the road but its very hard for a big man to contribute as a freshman. Because of Cronin (and then Morgan) as well as Ekpe only having two years of eligibility remaining I think the long term problems aren’t nearly as painful. However I think that next years chances of showing dramatic improvement are dashed significantly and people who disagree are seeing through maize and blue goggles.

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