Road wins put Zips atop MAC East Division

Akron coach Keith Dambrot has stressed the need for his players to watch out for a trap game during the team’s current stretch.

Through Jan. 29, the Zips were abiding by their coach’s request.

The Zips took sole possession of first place in the Mid-American Conference East Division by defeating Central Michigan on Jan. 28.

Akron (14-7, 6-1) had won three straight games entering the second week of a three-week, six-game stretch against teams from the MAC West Division.

The Zips opened up the swing with impressive victories at Ball State and Central Michigan. The Zips defeated the Cardinals 70-58 behind 16 points each from Brian Walsh and Quincy Diggs. Against Central Michigan, Zeke Marshall contributed 13 points, eight rebounds and blocked five shots. Nick Harney added 13 points off the bench for the Zips.

“When we can get out and run, we’re really good. We got easy shots. We shared the ball well,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said of the win over Central Michigan.

The Zips set themselves up for a solid late-season run by going 7-1 in January, even though six of the eight games were on the road. Now the Zips play six of their eight February conference games at home. Akron should be favored in all six home games, with the toughest matchup coming against Buffalo on Feb. 29.

Dambrot said Akron played sluggish at times against Central Michigan due to a rough month.

“We’ve done a lot of traveling in January, and I thought it looked that way today,” Dambrot said.

The Zips played well in January by attacking teams with a deep roster. Akron’s bench keyed a 12-0 run to negate a strong run by Ball State.

“Once that second group comes in, we push even harder,” Diggs said. “The people on the floor are already tired, so we come (fresh). It helps a lot. If the first group isn’t getting going, the second group comes in and gets things going, and that gets the starting five (started).”

The deep bench is one of the key factors in Akron’s current streak and why the Zips are one of the most balanced teams in the conference. The reserves account for nearly 30 points a game this season, with Diggs, Harney and Demetrius Treadwell playing key roles. Harney and Treadwell had not started a game this season through Jan. 29, while Diggs had seven starts in 21 games. Brett McClanahan is another key reserve with eight starts.

“You can call them a bench, but they’re really a starting nine. It’s just the way we’ve chosen to put them together,” Dambrot said. “I don’t know if Chauncey Gilliam and Brian Walsh are better than Quincy, we just choose to bring him off. Offensively, Harney’s probably one of our best offensive guys, and (Treadwell) is probably one of our best rebounders, if not the best rebounder we have.”

NOTES, QUOTES

Marshall becomes MAC’s all-time leading shot-blocker

–Junior C Zeke Marshall moved into seventh place on the Mid-American Conference’s all-time shot-blocking list with his first block at Central Michigan on Jan. 28. Marshall, who had 215 career blocks, contributed all over the floor, scoring 13 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking five shots at Central Michigan. Marshall had scored in double figures in 13 of his last 18 games through Jan. 29.

–Senior F Nikola Cvetinovic was held to eight points and four rebounds by Central Michigan. Cvetinovic had his second off-game in a row, as he had registered seven points and three rebounds at Ball State. He had failed to score more than nine points in three straight games through Jan. 29.

BY THE NUMBERS: 151 — The Zips had accumulated 151 steals this season through Jan. 29, averaging 7.2 steals per game, compared to 5.8 per game for their opponents.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “I think the strength of our team is that we’re real deep. We’re pretty athletic. We got a lot of depth on this team, and we have a lot of people who can go. That’s a major plus for us because we tire teams out over the course of the game.” — Akron reserve F Demetrius Treadwell, before the Central Michigan game.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK’S GAMES:

–vs. Toledo, Feb. 1

KEY MATCHUPS: The first game of a two-game home stretch features a visit by the Rockets (10-11). Toledo has a dominating player whom the Zips must contend with, Rian Pearson. Averaging a team-leading 15.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, Pearson is tough to stop in the post.

–vs. Eastern Michigan, Feb. 4

KEY MATCHUPS: This could be a potential key battle among the conference elite. Eastern Michigan, the leaders of the MAC West Division through Jan. 29, gets 13.3 points per game from Darrell Lampley, who had hit 34 3-pointers. No other EMU player was averaging more than 6.9 points per game.

FUTURES MARKET: Akron’s recent success — three straight games through Jan. 29 — would indicate another 20-win season for coach Keith Dambrot. Last year, the Zips won the Mid-American Conference title, earning the automatic NCAA Tournament bid. Dambrot, who passed CMU’s Dick Parfitt (1972-1985) for eighth place on the all-time MAC league wins list with his 96th conference victory, should be a hot target for programs looking for a new coach in the offseason. Dambrot has done a solid job at Akron, but his name has not gotten much national limelight — other than his association with LeBron James — because of Akron’s quick exits in the NCAA Tournament. That might change this season with the Zips blending a deep roster around a solid frontcourt and improving backcourt.

PLAYER NOTES

–Junior F Chauncey Gilliam tallied 11 points in a rare double-digit scoring performance at Central Michigan. Gilliam, who averages 5.7 points per game, is contributing more since getting inserted into the starting lineup. The 6-foot-5 Gilliam isn’t a flashy player, but his all-around contributions are essential for the deep Zips.

–Sophomore G Brian Walsh had started 14 of Akron’s 21 games through Jan. 29. Walsh’s shooting –53.2 percent on 3-pointers and 83.3 percent on free throws — and ability to contribute in several key categories have often been overlooked. Walsh is also a capable passer and defender, and he was averaging 3.7 rebounds per game.