ATHENS, Ohio – It’s probably the biggest Mid-American Conference regular season game in years.
It’s certainly the biggest MAC game of any kind since the teams’ first meeting almost four weeks ago, and it’s the biggest until a little over three weeks from now, when Akron and Ohio are likely to play again in the conference tournament final. Akron Coach Keith Dambrot even admitted as much last week.
But when they meet Wednesday night (7 p.m., SportsTime Ohio) at the Convocation Center on the Ohio campus, there’s plenty at stake. No. 24 Akron is riding an 18-game win streak and is trying to become the first Mid-American Conference team to go through league play unbeaten since Miami (Ohio) did it in 1958-59.
One of the added caveats to that is that the Zips (22-4, 12-0) haven’t won a thing yet. If Ohio (20-7, 11-1) wins Wednesday night, the conference race will be all square and that potential third matchup in the March 16 conference tournament final — the MAC’s top two finishers get auto-byes to the tournament semifinals, and Akron and Ohio are running laps past the rest of the league — could be even bigger.
Akron is ranked for the first time in school history and becomes the first ranked opponent to visit the Convocation Center since 1997. Streak or no streak, the experienced Zips are trying to get to the NCAA Tournament and know their path goes through this Ohio team one way or another — either by continuing to win all the way through and scoring the MAC’s automatic bid, or by some other route that starts tomorrow night.
There’s only one certain way in for Akron — and Ohio knows that, too.
“We’re not going to hide from it or lie about, all that stuff makes this game bigger,” Ohio senior guard Walter Offutt said. “It makes it bigger that they’re ranked in the top 25. It makes it bigger than a win here helps their case for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid if they need it.
“I think all the pressure is on them more than us, because win or lose we are still going to have to win the MAC Tournament. But (Wednesday) still means a lot for us as far as winning the MAC regular-season. We have nothing to lose. We’re playing at home and we can get a big run started.”
The Bobcats return their whole team from last season, when Akron won the MAC regular-season title but Ohio won the league tournament and won its way to the Sweet 16. Ohio, piloted by senior point guard D.J. Cooper, has been especially tough at home, where it has won 19 straight MAC games and is 16-1 this season.
Akron dominated the first game on Feb. 2, turning a 13-point first-half deficit into an 86-72 runaway. The Zips got a strong game from point guard Alex Abreu and muscled the smaller Bobcats inside with 7-foot headliner Zeke Marshall and 6’7 power forward Demetrius Treadwell, who posted what was then his fourth double-double of the season and played “like a monster,” Dambrot said.
“It’s our first chance to win the conference,” Ohio coach Jim Christian said of Wednesday’s game. “It’s not our last chance. But that doesn’t change anything. It’s a big game regardless of where it is or where it falls on the calendar.”
Christian was the coach at Kent State in 2008, and his Golden Flashes team was the last MAC team to be ranked in season. The ranking makes Akron a target, but Christian said he doesn’t think it will be a burden for the Zips or add any significance to Wednesday’s game.
“How you handle that depends on what the goals of the team are,” Christian said. “It won’t be a (burden) because of the magnitude of the game. It’s a reward for them because they deserve it. They’ve earned it. It’s up to us to try to stop their streak. We want to win the conference title and we’ve earned the right to play this game with a lot on the line.
The Zips and Bobcats have each won five of the last 10 games in the series. Included are two MAC Tournament Championship Games, both in the D.J. Cooper Era and both won by Ohio. The 2010 game was decided in overtime. Ohio won last year’s, 64-63.
“Over four years with these guys I’ve seen different names, different players, lots of games,” Cooper said. “I don’t consider it a rivalry because a lot of the players are different, but this is the time of year every game is big. We want to finish out strong. Both teams are playing for a lot.
“I definitely have a great deal of respect for Coach Dambrot. He has his guys ready every time we play them.”
More than 10,000 tickets have been distributed for Wednesday night’s game. Akron-Ohio has become the MAC’s new “it” rivalry because the programs have delivered good games in high-stakes, high-electricity environments. This one should be no different.
It’s the biggest one until the next one, anyway, and both sides figure to show up ready.
“It’s the time of year for you to lean on your experienced guys and your big-time players,” Offutt said. “We stepped up when it counted most last year, and we’re ready to try to do that again.”