NEW ORLEANS -- As he left Baylor's temporary locker room in the bowels of New Orleans Arena en route to his press conference after the Bears' second-round win over Old Dominion, coach Scott Drew leaped and slapped a small placard taped above the door. On the gray plastic, which hangs above the coaches' locker room door in Waco but makes every road trip, are the words "His Glory" in between two BU logos.
It took no small amount of effort -- Drew is, as they say, vertically challenged -- but the seventh-year coach at the world's largest Baptist university had much to be grateful for, which he expressed by greeting each player with a handshake and a "thank you, sir" after the game.
That win over ODU -- giving Baylor its first trip to the Sweet 16, in a season in which the Big 12's coaches voted Baylor 10th in the preseason -- was a balanced team effort, from LaceDarius Dunn's 26 points to Tweety Carter's eight assists to Josh Lomers' 14-point, eight-rebound night.
But undeniably the Bears' MVP this season has been junior transfer Ekpe Udoh. A 6-foot-10 forward with a 7-4 1/2 wingspan, he has predictably been a terror on defense and an unexpectedly major contributor on offense, though much of the latter doesn't always show up in his individual stat line.
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When Udoh arrived at Baylor after two years at Michigan, he was a specialist who had made the Big Ten's all-defensive team and who had broken Chris Webber's sophomore blocks record. He was also known as a player with a limited offensive game, having averaged 5.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 0.9 assists in his brief Wolverines career.
Udoh is also, however, the rare major-conference player who understood his need for drastic improvement and was glad to redshirt last season because of his transfer.
"I needed a year off to improve anyway," Udoh says.
Working primarily with assistant coach Matthew Driscoll -- who has since taken the head coaching job at North Florida -- Udoh set out to improve all areas of his game, but especially his ballhandling and his post moves, using his new repertoire to wreak havoc in team scrimmages. At one point, he was so dominant he earned the nickname Nightmare, which also works with the fact that his middle name is Friday; he even wears No. 13 because of it.
That practice success has carried over to this season: Udoh is now averaging 13.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
"He really maximized his redshirt year," assistant Mark Morefield says. "He treated last year as if it were this year. The rest of country knew he could defend, but what could he do offensively? We all saw it last year."
While the defensive improvement is easy to see -- Baylor jumped from No. 161 in the country in field-goal percentage defense (43.3 percent) to No. 7 (38.3), and Udoh set another school's blocks record -- the offensive change is significant, though less drastic. Udoh's improved handle and already strong passing skills have given Baylor a more balanced offense. He can play either point forward or simply kick the ball out to Carter or Dunn on the perimeter.
While last year's top post player, Kevin Rogers, scored nearly as many points (12.6), the frontline as a whole wasn't as adept at passing as Udoh. Last year the forwards in Baylor's rotation had 56 assists; this year they had 144, paced by Udoh's 88.
"This is the first year we've able to run things through the post, which has created a balance," Morefield says. "Defenses have to be honest with [Udoh], which opens up driving lanes."
According to Baylor's internal stats, last year in Big 12 play the Bears ran 61 percent of their offense through the paint and scored on 60 percent of those possessions. This year in league games Baylor reached the paint on 64 percent of its offensive possessions and scored 66 percent.
Those may seem like small changes, but Baylor averages about 68 possessions per game, so the improvements led to one or two additional baskets per game. Considering five of the Bears' Big 12 games this season were decided by four points or fewer, two baskets can go a long way. By Ken Pomeroy's ratings, Baylor had the nation's fifth-most efficient offense, a small uptick over its No. 13 rank in 2009.
And Udoh has added one more dimension to Baylor's offense: the buzzer-beater. Twice he has hit game-winning shots in the final two seconds (against Hartford and Missouri) and in a third game, against Missouri, he hit the go-ahead bucket with 26 seconds remaining.
"It's Kobe time," Udoh says of late-game situations. "When it gets down the stretch, I don't think there's a better closer in the game than Kobe Bryant."
He says none of his winning shots have been true Kobe, but some of them have been "Kobe-esque." Considering his contributions this season, all Baylor needs is more Udoh time.