For junior forward Ekpe Udoh and the Baylor Bears, timing is everything. Known in recent years for its guard-focused, high energy offense, Baylor often was at a disadvantage against teams with skilled big men who could dominate the post. Not anymore.
With Udoh--one of the premier shot-blockers in the country--patrolling the paint this winter, Baylor had an edge inside all season long. The transfer from Michigan was the building block in transforming a Baylor program known for its offensive prowess into one also recognized for its stingy defense. At the end of the regular season, the Bears were second in the Big 12 in team field goal percentage (.486) and team field goal defense (.382), trailing only No. 1-ranked Kansas in each category.
Udoh's presence paid a large part in Baylor matching the program record for wins in a season and setting a new high for Big 12 victories, including at least one win against every Big 12 South opponent and a road victory at then No. 6-ranked Texas.
"Timing, athleticism, skill, art--you can put it all together, but that's what makes him such an elite shot blocker," said Bears head coach Scott Drew. "We've had shot blockers before, but they'd foul out as they got blocks. Ekpe does a great job of staying out of foul trouble. And the other thing with that is I wish we had a stat for altered shots and rushed shots. He affects the game in so many more ways than just his blocked shots."
After deciding to leave Michigan, Udoh said he was drawn to Baylor by Drew's progressing program, the impressive basketball facilities, and the chance to play with senior point guard Tweety Carter, who has led the Big 12 in assists this season.
"I just liked what Baylor was doing at the time," said the Edmond, Okla., native. "I knew I needed to play with an excellent point guard, and when I came out, me and Tweety really hit it off. And Coach Drew, he's an animated guy. He's really passionate. He loves the fans, and it's fun to play for a coach like that."
As a transfer, Udoh had to sit out the 2008-09 season due to NCAA rules. Drew and Udoh concur that it was during that year of practice that Udoh really developed his all-around game. Known for his defense at Michigan, where he led the Big 10 Conference in blocks as a sophomore, Udoh worked diligently with former Baylor assistant Matt Driscoll (now the head coach at North Florida) to improve his offensive game.
Versatile big men are a rare commodity at any level, and Udoh is certainly versatile--and big. The 6-foot-10, 240-pound Udoh averaged 35 minutes, 13.4 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.1 blocks and 2.6 assists per game during the regular season. He recorded Baylor's fifth-ever triple-double against Morgan State (18 points, 17 rebounds and 10 blocks) and was one block away from repeating the feat in two other games. He set new Big 12 and Baylor records for blocks in a season (123 and counting) and was on pace to pass Mamadou Diene for second on Baylor's career blocks list after just one season.
Such feats earned Udoh all-Big 12 honors from the league's coaches, including Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, and all-America recognition from several media outlets.
"He changes the game on both ends of the court," said Drew. "Ekpe gives us a low post presence, as well as somebody who can handle the ball, create for other people and make other people around him better. And on the defensive end, I think everyone knew how good he was, but that offensive end is really what surprised a lot of people. He gets all the credit for the hard work he put in last year to improve, and he's taken advantage of the freedom that we give him on offense."
Due to his improvement, Udoh is garnering more and more attention from pro scouts. As speculation swirled about whether Udoh would be a lottery pick in this summer's NBA draft, Udoh declined to offer a timetable for a decision to turn pro.
"I'm not going to mess with that now; I'm just focused on the [NCAA] tournament," he said in a Feb. 22 interview.
The Baylor faithful would be thrilled if the man nicknamed "The Nightmare" returned for his senior season. Losing starters Carter and Josh Lomers to graduation will be tough, but with the return of Udoh, forwards Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones and Corey Jefferson, and the addition of consensus top-five recruit Perry Jones, Baylor could have one of the best frontcourts in the nation next year.
As the Bears entered the NCAA Tournament with their highest seed in at least 60 years thanks in large part to Udoh's expert timing in swatting shots, Baylor fans everywhere benefited from his impeccable timing in joining Drew's squad, making this season one of the greatest in the history of Baylor basketball.