'He's a bucket-getter': UC to play more positionless with versatile big man Kalu Ezikpe

Historically, the University of Cincinnati men's basketball program has had success with athletic, undersized interior players.

Forwards like Erik Martin, Danny Fortson, Bobby Brannen, Jason Maxiell, Eric Hicks, Gary Clark, Tre Scott and others all made major contributions on both ends of the court for the Bearcats. And they did it while standing about 6 feet, 7 inches tall.

Second-year Cincinnati coach Wes Miller knows and respects the history of the Cincinnati program. He also respects the Bearcats' longstanding formula for winning. A part of that formula has routinely consisted of Cincinnati having a forward who overcomes a lack of height with toughness, athleticism and skills to guard multiple positions and put the ball in the basket.

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That's why Miller added fifth-year Old Dominion transfer Kalu Ezikpe in the offseason.

"Kalu is more of a true forward," Miller said. "He's got perimeter skills. He can really handle the ball. He can really pass. He's got great athleticism. I'm trying to get him to figure out how to unlock that athleticism with how he plays, to get his motor running, to do some little things to take advantage of that combination of width, strength, power, quickness, feel. But we're going to use him completely different than we used Hayden and Abdul. Because even though that might be the biggest guy on the floor, it's not the same position per se."

Cincinnati Bearcats will have a more versatile lineup

Miller had 7-footers Abdul Ado and Hayden Koval patrolling the paint during his debut campaign at Cincinnati last season. The two were among the most prolific shot blockers in the country during their respective college careers. Ado, who is now a graduate assistant for Miller, had at least two blocks in 15 different games a season ago. The Mississippi State transfer had a season-high five blocks in a win against Presbyterian and four blocks in a victory over Wichita State.

The two formed a stout last line of defense for the Bearcats, not just by blocking shots but also by altering them.

"Last year, I would've loved to have played defense with Abdul behind me because a lot times you get beat, and the guy that beat you doesn't want to keep going because he looks down there and says, 'I ain't messing with him,' " Miller said. "This year, it's not the same. But the things that are positive are you've got lineups where four guys on the floor are over 6-5, your wingspans are different, you can cover more ground. So there's some neat things you can do there. I think you can deny more passes. I think you can rotate and cover more ground in rotation. You can double-team a little bit more. I think you can have more success pressing and doing some of the pressing stuff that we've done in the past."

What Kalu Ezikpe brings to UC

While the 6-foot-8, 235-pound Ezikpe gives Miller more versatility on defense, he also gives the Bearcats a dimension they didn't have with Ado and Koval: offensive production.

Ezikpe is coming off a season where he was a team captain for Old Dominion and averaged 11.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in 32 games (30 starts).

The Lawrenceville, Georgia, native also led the Monarchs in total blocks (36) and finished second on the team in rebounding and field-goal percentage (52.2%) and third in scoring and free-throw percentage (74%).

Kalu Ezikpe (22), then a member of the Old Dominion Monarchs, blocks a shot by Purdue's Carsen Edwards (3) during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
Kalu Ezikpe (22), then a member of the Old Dominion Monarchs, blocks a shot by Purdue's Carsen Edwards (3) during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

Ezikpe said he chose to transfer to Cincinnati over Georgia, Georgia Tech, LSU, Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky because of the Bearcats' history and the UC fan base.

"I'm a big basketball fan," he said. "So all the history, Oscar Robertson, Nick Van Exel, I was familiar with that. Obviously my last year playing college basketball, playing in a program that the fans care about a lot and a winning program like here in this city is really the main reasons I came here."

As basketball continues to evolve into a positionless game, Miller has chosen to evolve with it. Instead of having a traditional center like the ones he admired during his youth (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal), the 39-year-old Miller will have a player in Ezikpe that can play and defend multiple positions, lead a fastbreak, create offense for others, hit open shots and still finish at and around the rim.

'On the court, he's a big presence'

While Miller said Ezikpe's arrival won't change the team's man-to-man defensive principles or its overall core values, Cincinnati fourth-year guard Jeremiah Davenport said he has already noticed an improvement in the team's versatility on defense and fluidity on offense.

"On the court, he's a big presence," Davenport said. "You see how big he is physically. And on the offensive end, he's a bucket-getter. I'm not going to lie. It's a big difference having a four/five guy with his size. It's going to be a nightmare for people some nights."

Cincinnati's first night with Ezikpe is Nov. 7. The Bearcats open the season against Chaminade at 7 p.m. at Fifth Third Arena.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Kalu Ezikpe will help Cincinnati Bearcats play positionless basketball