Saturday, December 3, 2011
Akunne, McLimans step up
By Michael Rothstein WolverineNation
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- John Beilein looked down his bench, and with his team somewhat floundering in the first half against Iowa State, he went beyond what had been his normal rotation.
He inserted two players who have been little-used members of Michigan's basketball team the past two-plus seasons -- junior guard Eso Akunne and redshirt sophomore forward Blake McLimans. Their appearance took a tie game and gave the Wolverines a cushion they would need Saturday in a 76-66 win over Iowa State.
Tim Hardaway Jr. had a team-high 19 points after scoring a season-low five at Virginia.
"They were big," freshman point guard Trey Burke said. "They gave us big minutes off the bench and it's one of the reasons why we won, because who knows, if we were up eight or nine points, how the game would have went.
"We know what Eso and Blake are capable of."
They took different routes to get here. Akunne was the preferred walk-on from Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor. McLimans is a scholarship player who, at one point, was the likely replacement for DeShawn Sims in the starting lineup at the beginning of the 2010-11 season. Instead, Jordan Morgan won the job.
Before the past two weeks, neither really played many meaningful minutes for Michigan.
This has been some time coming for Akunne. Beilein invited Akunne in as a walk-on after seeing his vision and distribution skills in high school, gave him a scholarship as a freshman and played him 17 meaningful minutes against Utah in the first semester when Zack Novak couldn't play due to the flu.
As he was starting to get into the rotation, he became academically ineligible for the second semester of his freshman year due to confusion on a grade in Calculus 1. He returned his sophomore season as a walk-on again and sat behind then-starting point guard Darius Morris.
Morris' departure to the NBA opened up minutes this season, and Akunne has taken advantage. He might play only 5.3 minutes a game, but he has made all five of his shots this year.
"I don't have that much time," Akunne said. "So I have to be very confident when I get in there and not think, 'Oh my gosh.'"
Maturity, Akunne said, has helped him, and it showed when he made a 3-pointer to give Michigan a 24-23 lead. The basket started a 13-2 run to end the first half and give the Wolverines a 34-25 lead over the Cyclones.
It was a run that saw eight of the 13 points scored by Akunne and McLimans, who made a 3-pointer, hit a layup and also took a charge. Each scored five points against Iowa State for his career high.
"Eso and I play together in practice all the time so we've got a good flow," McLimans said. "Eso and I both know when we go in there we have to do what we can do to get the team back into the game."
It ended up as the run Michigan needed since Iowa State cut a 22-point lead to six, 72-66, with 29 seconds to go.
But the Wolverines hung on, owing a debt of gratitude to two guys who, at this time last season, were almost afterthoughts on the bench. Now, they have a role.
And they earned it through practice. Beilein said McLimans has been consistent the last two weeks in practice, and Akunne has been a problem for his starters all season long.
So much so, he even called Akunne what could end up being a nickname he likely wouldn't want to stick -- he compared him to a milkshake.
"He can make shots and we have a tough time guarding him," Beilein said. "We say he puts a guy into a blender, kind of like a milkshake, he starts shaking and baking and all of a sudden he gets an open shot."
This is what Michigan's players have seen in practice. Akunne usually plays the part of the opposing point guard -- and on Friday he was Iowa State guard Chris Allen.
And Burke said he usually mimics the opposing guard perfectly, while also getting his own shot.
"He would do exactly what their best player would do," Burke said. "Eso, he gives buckets in practice.
"We all know what he's capable of."
Now he -- and McLimans -- are showing everyone else, too.
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.