Position by Position: Center

Dylan Burkhardt

I’m going to take a look at each position group on this years team and look at starters, rotation, expectations and more. Starting today with the five position. The roster is shockingly bare at the five, consisting of Zack Gibson, Ben Cronin, and Eric Puls.

Zack Gibson is the likely starter at the center position. If you have listened to Beilein lately he has constantly mentioned doubling Zack’s stats from last year and coming up with great numbers.

Last year: 13.9 mpg, 5.4 ppg, 48.2 FG%, 26.7 3PFG%, 2.8 reb, .7 blk
Projection/Doubled: 27.8 mpg, 10.8 ppg, 48.2 FG%, 26.7 3PFG%, 5.6reb, 1.4blk

Clearly just doubling stats isn’t going to provide a true projection. For comparison Ekpe averaged 26mpg, 6ppg, and 5 rpg last year. Only four times did Zack play 20 minutes or more last year and only three times did he grab six rebounds in a game (Oakland, Boston College, and Brown).  It is possible that Zack can average right around that 10 points per game mark but the worry I have is on defense. Last year the Michigan defense often consisted of a defender getting beaten off the dribble and Ekpe cleaning up the mess. This won’t cut it with Zack in the middle of the 1-3-1 and Ekpe’s 3 blocks per game will be sorely missed.

There is also an issue with the shooting percentage. Beilein is convinced that Zack is a good three point shooter and he must be in practice but he shot only 26.7% from long range last year. I think it might be time to tone down the out of bounds plays designed for Zack Gibson threes unless he shows a better stroke early on.

The back up for Gibson is freshman Ben Cronin. Cronin is large (listed at 7-0 265) but has been limited by a hip injury all summer long. Had Udoh not transferred I would have expected Cronin to take a red shirt year but now as one of the only other big men on the roster Michigan doesn’t look so fortunate. It sounds like Cronin will be good to go when practice starts up but it is still worrisome that he has hip issues before he even plays a college game. Cronin was described many times as slow and lumbering running the court but if he can disturb things inside on defense and on the glass he could be an asset for 10 minutes or so per game.

The other x-factors at the five position are DeShawn Sims and Eric Puls. I don’t expect Puls to play at all and would consider it a minor miracle, he has some height at 6-10 but lacks any size (listed at a generous 210 pounds). DeShawn will of course get most of his minutes at the four but Beilein mentioned going small and running him at the five. I think this would work for short stretches especially if we can spread the floor well enough. I’ll talk a lot more about “Peedi” in the power forward preview.

Overall the center position is probably one of the biggest weaknesses on this team just because of the depth issues alone. Michigan needs Gibson to be a solid big man who can at least hold his own offensively and defensively in the post as well as on the glass. The combination of Cronin and DeShawn should be able to cover 10 or so minutes per game. The problem here is that if Gibson or Big Ben can’t cut it, there are no other options.

  • BBall

    I remember Gibson getting quite a few lay-ins last year cutting to the rim and not many post-up moves. Do you remember from last year what his role was any better?
    Did he get any touches on the block?
    Do you think he will this year?
    Did teams double-down at all last year?

    I think he has really good touch around the rim (unlike Sims…hopefully that was a major point of emphasis in his offseason. Missed layups are killers). I would like to see him hit a jump-hook or up-and-under move consistently.

  • Gibson didn’t get many touches on the block. Most set plays for Zack were three point shots honestly.

    The hope all around is that we will see a lot more backcuts and easy layups overall as the team starts to understand the system more.

  • Tom

    Dylan, I’m not going to sit here and say Gibson is better than Ekpe…but I think Ekpe’s defense accolades are overstated. He was a great shot blocker numbers wise, but in reviewing game film last year, he(along with Grady) were 2 big reasons why the 1-3-1 was such a sieve last year.

    Playing in the 1-3-1, Ekpe would basically just roam and not hanlde his positioning responsibilities and it put a lot of stress on the other parts of the D…sure he’d get some block shots, but that is going to happen when you try and block everyone’s shot. To help prove my point, just look at Ekpe’s rebounding numbers…how can a guy as long, athletic as Ekpe have such week rebounding numbers? It’s because he was often out of position to get rebounds because he was trying to block shots. So, even with the gaudy shot block numbers, I think Ekpe was as much of the problem on D last year as anyone else on the team.

    I’m not saying Gibson is necessarily the answer, but he is a much better position defender than Ekpe was and he will be the part of the reason UM will be able to play more of the 1-3-1 this season. I also think Zack can be more effective on the boards because he will be in better position on a more frequent basis.

    Again, don’t misinterpret this post as saying Gibson is the answer to all of UM’s problems…all I’m saying is that while losing Ekpe will hurt, I don’t believe it is near the issue that some think it will be. In fact…to me, Ekpe leaving is really only a BIG issue when it comes to depth…if Cronin is cleared to play and is able to log quality minutes to spell Gibson, Ekpe’s loss becomes much less of an issue, IMO.

  • I definitely understand what your saying about Ekpe. In regards to playing the 1-3-1 more I think that’s likely as well. But last year I wouldn’t give a very high grade to the combination of Ekpe & Zack and now we just have one of them and a freshman with no experience.

    I hope Gibson is a pleasant surprise, and don’t think that would be out of the question. But there are still issues with Cronin even getting cleared to play, and then whether he is effective.

    It’ll be interesting and I think whatever we get out of the 5 is one of the bottlenecks to how good this team will be.

  • BBall

    Who are the returning projected starters for the other teams in the big ten?

    How do we stack up?

  • Brick

    I think Tom is right with his assessment. I think most fans saw Ekpe block some shots and assumed he was a great defender. His on the ball defense and positioning in the zone schemes were not very good last year. I don’t think Gibson will be a step backwards. I also don’t think Tom was saying that Gibson is great, just that we shouldn’t be any worse at the center position than we were last year. We still need much better rebounding and one on one defense this year. I hope Cronin gets healthy because will need him to provide a little of both for about 10 minutes a game.

  • BBall: I’m working with other Big Ten Bloggers to do a preview of all the teams around the Big Ten.

    So far I have done MSU

    And more coming soon.

  • BBall

    Great preview of the Spartans. Thanks for the link!

    Who will we be facing at Center?

    Suton for the Spartans

    Is Butch Still Around at Wisc?

    DJ White is gone

    Pruitt for Illini?

    Didn’t know if you had a quick run-down of centers for the other teams.

    Looking forward to the previews!