One Step Forward Two Steps Back

Dylan Burkhardt

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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  • Musket Rebellion

    Dylan – Well said. EXpe’s defense was the only thing going for us on that end of the court. Cronin is a big body to throw in there, but I was definitely hoping we could redshirt him and let EXpe guard the hoop all year. My hope is that Gibson steps up his game. Now he knows that this is all on him, if he can at least play to his potential (which isn’t asking a lot) then I think the boost on the offensive end will help ease what will be considerable pain on the defensive side this year. I wear the thickest pair of maize and blue goggles out there, but this is a huge setback for this upcoming season because without EXpe we have no legitimate interior player, and we’ll be asking a lot out of guys who are either not suited for, or are not ready for the role that EXpe held.

  • Ky Fox

    well we just have to move forward and hopefully JB is looking hard into a good looking/athletic center or power forward for 09′ the good thing about next year tho is that we have ample depth at gaurd and small forward now..while most of our depth is young we should be much better in stretching the defense and be a little more fundamentaly sound. We will just have to try and outscore a lot of our opponents.

  • steve

    good post.

    Ekpe wouldn’t have been Beileins’ first pick in the litter, and I think that the offense was extremely awkward with Ekpe in the game. I won’t go any further, but I really still see us as being a 17ish win team next year with still a shot at some postseason. We just have to hope that Beilein can put together a game plan that highlights our strengths, and hides the weaknesses of our big men.

  • umdcbball

    Good post, Dylan. I can’t really disagree.

    My maize and blue goggles show me a team that will still get into the mid to high teens in wins. Two reasons: 1)Our shooting was so bad last year that it has to get better. 2)Our perimeter defense has to get better. My nightmares of last year are of guys (mostly no name bums) draining career highs in threes against us.

    I don’t think Ekpe staying or going would have much of an effect on either of the above.

  • Mark

    Puls!!!! He’ll lead us to victory.

  • sid

    I liked having Epke and wish him the best, but I don’t think he’s NBA talent regardless of where he plays. Unlike others, I don’t think we’ll be all that much worse without him. This team has far more pressing issues that need fixing – above all learning to shoot the ball and finding a way to utilize the talents these guys have in a system that doesn’t seem suited for it.

    As for Gibson, every flash of potential he showed seemed to be followed by moments where just catching the ball seemed to pose an insurmountable challenge.

    For better or worse, I’m casting my lot with the freshmen coming in, hoping they can contribute as soon as possible but realizing it won’t be as soon as we’d like.

  • We Shall Overcome

    Sure it hurts to lose Ekpe but let’s be real. He wasn’t a big offensive factor and frankly, the team will survive. I think the one who is going to hurt himself the most is Ekpe.

  • Ky Fox

    its basically going to boil down to…. will our offense be able to outscore our opponents. To be honest i dont know what to expect. There are soo many questions that intrigue me! big of an impact will Novak be? Will he instantly be an impact? How good is Cronin actually going to be?? How much have our returnees actually developed?? How good is LLP?? I seriously do not no what to expect from this team. I mean i think we should be able to score some points while rasing our shooting %, but how much better? One thing i guess that is in our advantage is that we could win some games in our league. With Iowa now being worse or the same, IU will suck, I would hope we could beat the NW, PSU, , and return the favor to Minnesota. Then maybe steal some games from Wisconsin, maybe purdue…and now I dont see us beating OSU, or MSU…but I could be very very wrong.

  • Ky Fox

    thats the beauty of college basketball though. Just when we might not be expected to do anything…we could really come out of nowhere and suprise the college basketball world. Especially when you look at a team like Davidson! Other than having a poor frontcourt rotation, we have some weapons on offense now and we could be similar to say a davidson. Especially if guys like Novak, Douglass, LLP, Manny, Grady, Wright, and even Deshawn can really start stroking the ball well. It should be very interesting to watch it all unvail, and see just how good of a developer JB is.

  • John Edwards

    I am a Big Blue lifelong fan, but, I have to say, that we do not have a prayer for next year. No good recruits in the mix. I am very concerned about the hiring of John Beilein. Don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but, its not looking like we will improve, but go backwards in 2008 – 2009. Maybe in 2010 we will see something from the new coach ?

    Good thing we have foot Ball to look forward to.

  • Ky Fox

    well john edwards, I guess thats why they play the games. We can speculate all we want, but until its settled on the court we never know. And as far as football is concerned…I dont know if we should feel so confident about that this fall either. Some looming questions as far as im concerned….qauterback???,….defense??? We will soon find out!

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