'Nightmare' in middle transforms No. 20 Baylor

WACO, Texas (AP) — Ekpe Udoh was in a spirited practice while redshirting last season when one of his Baylor teammates said something about his dominating presence.

"I'm a nightmare," Udoh responded.

Now the rest of the Big 12 and other opposing teams are getting to know the post player with a self-proclaimed nickname. The former Michigan player wearing No. 13 — his middle name is Friday — is no longer confined to the practice court for the 20th-ranked Bears (16-4).

"That's a nice guy to pick up as a transfer," Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg said after Udoh had 23 points and seven rebounds against the Minutemen two weeks ago. "As much as anything, he dominates the game by just being out there. His presence is really what separates him."

Having the 6-foot-10, 240-pounder in the middle has certainly helped transform Baylor, which last season made it to the NIT championship game depending primarily on its outside shooting. While the perimeter game with LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter is still a big part of the Bears offense, Udoh — whose name is pronounced EPP'-ay YOO'-doh — has provided an added inside dimension on both ends of the court.

Udoh averages 13.7 points a game while shooting 50 percent from the field with 10.7 rebounds per game, both second-best in the Big 12. He leads the league with 4.2 blocks (fifth nationally) and 4.3 offensive boards a game.

The Bears have 150 blocked shots, already a school record and four more than in twice as many games last season. Outrebounded a year ago, Baylor is now first in the Big 12 and fifth nationally with a plus-8.7 rebounding margin.

"Ekpe's impact on the floor, it's obvious," coach Scott Drew said. "The impact that people don't know about is the mental approach he has to the game, the leadership. ... The same thing with how he affects the game when he doesn't block shots, but alters them or intimidates them or changes people's game plan."

Baylor students have started wearing horror film-inspired hockey masks while cheering on Udoh and the Bears, who are home against Iowa State on Wednesday night.

"You see masks everywhere. It's crazy," said Udoh, who often salutes the fans by flashing the school's traditional "Bear Claw" hand signal.

Udoh is more than a big man who slams balls or swats them away, though his 84 blocks are only 14 shy of the single-season school record and seventh on the career list. He is the only Baylor player with an assist in every game, and his 54 are second on the team behind Carter's 100, a fact that surprised even Udoh — "Really? Wow," he said.

Udoh spent two seasons at Michigan, leaving a year after coach Tommy Amaker departed. He had to sit out last season in Waco, when the Wolverines made it to the NCAA tournament and Baylor advanced to the NIT final at Madison Square Garden.

"It was tough all the way around, watching this team's success and still watching Michigan," said Udoh, who spent most of last season working with former Bears assistant Matthew Driscoll, now North Florida's head coach. "We did a great job last year handling our business when the lights were off. Now that the lights are on, I can show where I've improved."

In 67 games at Michigan, Udoh averaged 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds while scoring at least 10 points only nine times. He already has 10 double-doubles at Baylor (16 double-figure scoring games), along with a triple-double of 18 points, 17 rebounds and 10 blocked shots a month ago against Morgan State.

"I have talked to a couple of scouts and they said he can be a top 15 or 20 pick in (the 2010) draft. He is a great player," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. "He affects the game in so many ways. He has come a long way."

While his dream has always been to play in the NBA, the son of Nigerian immigrants who grew up in Edmond, Okla., hasn't said yet if he will enter the draft this summer or come back for his senior season at Baylor. Udoh has a consistent answer when asked about his plans by reporters or anxious fellow students passing him on campus.

"I'm at Baylor right now, that's all I'm thinking about," he said. "I just want to embrace this. If I can get to the (NCAA) tournament, that would mean the world to me."

All while trying to live up the moniker he gave himself last year while doing all the grunge work in practice when he couldn't play.

"It was a stretch last year, nobody had really seen me," Udoh said. "The only people that could really believe in me were the people that had seen me play, people who have known me. ... I haven't really taken my game to the next level to really solidify that name, so that's something I have to work on."