To hear his Baylor coaches and teammates tell it, Ekpe Udoh is the world's oldest 22-year-old. They call him Pops or Uncle Ep for his stately demeanor, early-to-bed regimen and lumbering off-court gait—the result of aching knees. The coaches appreciate the mature approach of the 6'10" junior forward, who never slacks off in practice or in class and whose basketball insights are so sophisticated that talking to him is "like holding a clinic with another coach," says former assistant Matthew Driscoll, now the coach at North Florida.
When he steps on the court, however, Ekpe Udoh (EPP-ay YOU-doe) is ferocious and nimble, worthy of his given name, Ekpedeme, which means "lion" in Efik, a dialect spoken in his parents' native Nigeria. (His middle name is Friday, which is why he wears number 13. "Marketing," Udoh says with a laugh.) Whatever you call him, he has buoyed the Bears with his trusted leadership, prodigious shot blocking and newfound offensive versatility.
Picked to finish 10th in a preseason poll of Big 12 coaches, Baylor is a success story as heartwarming as any in this year's tournament. As the No. 3 seed in the South, the Bears beat Sam Houston State 68--59 for their first NCAA win since 1950, then advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history with a 76--68 victory over Old Dominion. A win over St. Mary's in Houston on Friday would be yet another major milestone for Baylor, which is in its fifth and final year of probation after multiple scandals rocked the program under former coach Dave Bliss. The low point came in July 2003, when Bears center Patrick Dennehy was murdered by teammate Carlton Dotson; the next month, Bliss resigned and Baylor hired Scott Drew, whose dad, Homer, coached Valparaiso to the Sweet 16 in 1998.
Udoh initially enrolled at Michigan, where he made the Big Ten all-defensive team in 2008, but when new coach John Beilein arrived, Udoh says, "I didn't think I'd reach my potential in his [motion] offense." Not that anyone thought he had much. A preseason scouting report on draftexpress.com described Udoh as a "fairly limited player offensively," a harsh but not altogether incorrect assessment at the time.
During the year he sat out because of the transfer, Udoh worked relentlessly under Driscoll's supervision, honing his ballhandling and adding countermoves to his limited low-block arsenal. He used scout-team scrimmages as his showcase, once scoring 17 straight points in a game to 20 against the starters. "He brought a lot of energy that made us better last year," senior center Josh Lomers says, "and that continued over to this year."
Drew had used a three- or four-guard, dribble-drive attack the past few seasons but now often circulates the ball through Udoh in the post, where he has terrific awareness and passing skills. "Defenses have to be honest with Ekpe, which opens up driving lanes," Morefield says. When Sam Houston State came out in a triangle-and-two to lock down the Bears' backcourt of Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn, Udoh shifted to point forward and scored 20 points while handing out five assists and grabbing 13 rebounds.
Defensively, Udoh has been as advertised, breaking a school record with 128 blocks and ranking fifth nationally with 3.8 per game. His 7'4½" wingspan solidified the frontline of Baylor's 2--3 zone, and the Bears improved their field-goal-percentage defense from 161st in the country (43.3) in 2008--09 to seventh this season (38.3). Draftexpress.com now projects Udoh to be a late lottery pick. Says his father, Sam, "He has the determination of a lion." And a game well beyond his years.