Sam Webb: I think you guys have gotten a big spark from Ekpe Udoh recently. He got inserted into the starting lineup at Duke first. What was the thought process? What had he done to get promoted like that?
Mike Jackson: “We thought that he had really turned up his intensity level defensively. He is starting to really understand the offense where he can get his shots. Ekpe’s basketball IQ, his skill level in terms of his passing, his ball handling for a kid that is 6’10”; those were assets for him going in. I think with the turn up of intensity, the understanding now of what we are trying to do, how we are trying to use him… it has made him kind of explode now. He has really given us, what we expected to get from Ekpe from the beginning. Again, the transition to a new coach, new system, it takes some time and Ekpe needed some time to get adjusted and now he seems to have settled in real nice.”
Sam Webb: He definitely looks more comfortable out there and I thought in the Oakland game in particular, he was a spark. I think he has definitely been that defensive presence, blocking shots, altering shots in the paints on the defensive end. But on the offensive end in recent games… I recall against Oakland, a couple of back to the basketball moves, a 12-footer and even a 3 pointer. He looked like he was giving you some things offensively in that game.
Mike Jackson: “No question. Coach has spent a lot of time working on Ekpe’s shooting and to extend his range. Ekpe was always a 10-15 foot guy, because he really likes to post up and face up and do some things. With him being able to make shots, now extending to the college 3, he is going to be really effective for us, because most big guys are not quick enough to keep Ekpe in front of them. So if they have got to go out and guard him because he can shoot it. He can now start putting it on the floor and going by people. His passing becomes more effective. His offense rebounding becomes more effective, because he is going by people out there trying to box him out in space, as opposed to boxing him out right at the rim, where Ekpe is only 225-230 right now. So he is expanding his offensive game and it is helping our team offensively.”
Sam Webb: Ekpe said Coach Beilein has been talking a little bit more about getting some touches in the post, doing some different things. Beilein sort of mentioned it as well. He said “learning what this team can do well and sort of fitting that in”. Is that something that you guys have been focusing on?
Mike Jackson: “I always felt like I had a pretty good grasp about what our guys could do, but I am not making the final say on a lot of things and coach has had to see what guys can do and where they are most effective on the floor. Now that Ekpe has become the normal Ekpe because of his comfort level, coach now sees all the things that he is able to do and now he can find ways to get him shots, to put him in situations to make passes and make plays for other guys and that is what we are trying to do now. Ekpe is a very versatile player for his size and he is going to be a hard match up all year long, if he continues to keep his mindset right and we will continue to run a lot of things through him.”
Sam Webb: One of the things Jack, the media is an ever present thing. You know you get criticism of the team, especially when you’re off to the kind of start you guys are off to. You hear the criticisms about certain guys don’t fit this and certain guys don’t fit that. How do you condition them to deal with things like that in this learning process?
Mike Jackson: “It is just a constant buildup from us to let them know that we are moving in the right direction. We watch film with them every day. We do skill development every day. It is just a constant process of us being able to get them to understand that they are getting better. We watched the Duke film and one of the biggest things that our guys didn’t realize is that when we went from being down 18-14 to being down 33-14, Duke did absolutely nothing to get that lead. They hit five 3s and they were all in transition. We just had poor transition defense and so they come on the practice floor with a lot more pop to them. If we just shore that up, our half court defense was pretty good. We can't give up easy baskets that are going to allow us to be in a lot of games. Things like that give your team psyche a little bit of a boost when you understand that you can control some of the things that happen bad to you maybe in a loss and we know we can get better at it. I think that showed in the game last night.”
Sam Webb: It is interesting that you say that, because talking to Manny (Harris) recently about what Michigan’s best game has been, he said, “you know what, I actually thought we played pretty well at Duke in a loss”. Is that what he was getting at?
Mike Jackson: “Yeah. I thought that was a big thing for us. When we saw what happened in certain parts of the game. That was going to be a very tough game to win at Cameron. A lot of people don’t win there and they got a great team this year. But the way things transpired, we realized that if we shore up a few things, we keep that game under control and we at least keep it within striking distance. Now whether we win or lose, I don’t know. But our guys just felt a lot more confident about our ability to defend people in the half court, to rebound with people and to score points. Because we missed a lot of shots in that game that we would normally make. So coming out of that environment, if you can feel confident about a few things that you are doing, you can shore up a few things that you realize you didn’t do well in that game.
Sam Webb: Well coach moving on to some of the other players. We talked about Ekpe and his recent performances. You’ve also gotten more than I anticipated you would from Jevohn Shepherd. He is a guy that had both you and Coach Dunn on earlier in the season said, “He is one of the kids that might be struggling to pick it up a little bit more than others.” But recently he hit double figures for a career high and he has been assertive. He has a couple of times made nice authoritative moves to the basket for dunks. He is looking more comfortable out there as well.
Mike Jackson: “I was frustrated with Jevohn
and he knows it. I would be the first one to tell him how I feel. I was frustrated
with him a little bit early, not because he couldn’t pick it up. I always
feel like Jevohn gets himself in trouble sometimes when he is hunting his offense
and not doing the other things that he should be doing. To Jevohn’s credit
and most kids can't do this, when he got regulated to not playing, his attitude
was unbelievable. He came to practice every day. He might not have liked being
on the scout team some days. He might not have liked knowing that going into
a game that he was not going to play that many minutes, but when his opportunity
came again, he was ready. Coach appreciates that a lot of Jevohn and the other
guys have an example now of how you bounce back. Because your opportunity always
comes back around and I am extremely proud of how he handled himself in a time
where he wasn’t playing as a junior. So for what has happened to him,
I was proud of it and I told him that we got to keep building on it. It can't
be where he gets satisfied with that and he has to continue to focus on the
right things. Offense will take care of itself because Jevohn has talent. He
needs to make sure that he is defending, rebounding, he is running, because
everything else will take care of itself. But I am really happy to see him do
what he has done.