AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Diving into the history of terrible endings to otherwise outstanding seasons would simply be dancing around the obvious.
Akron showed up to the NCAA tournament Thursday night and got flattened. The No. 12 seed Zips had a terrible matchup against No. 5 VCU and played terribly. Playing without suspended point guard Alex Abreu was a recipe for disaster for Akron against VCU’s full-court pressure defense, and the final score of 88-42 certainly qualifies as disaster.
The Zips had more problems than just the matchups, the strategy and the kind of fast-paced start to the game on which VCU thrives. VCU kept getting easy shots and kept making them, and the whole thing snowballed into the Zips’ 26-win season coming to a screeching halt and the aforementioned wrong kind of history.
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For a little more than an hour, it stood as the largest margin of defeat in an NCAA tournament game for a team that wasn’t a No. 15 or 16 seed. Syracuse’s 81-34 rout of Montana in San Jose that started approximately an hour after the Akron-VCU game made for a short stay with that kind of documented infamy.
Simply being in the Eastern time zone is the best thing that happened to Akron in 24 hours.
Akron had a makeshift starting lineup not only with a freshman point guard forced into action but without senior shooting guard Brian Walsh, who spent much of Wednesday night in a local emergency room with severe flu symptoms. It was more seconds than minutes before Akron coach Keith Dambrot’s worst fears came to fruition.
Compounding the Zips struggles to break the pressure was the fact VCU seemingly couldn’t miss. The Rams shot 22-of-36 in the first half, scored 28 first-half points in the paint and turned 10 Akron turnovers into 14 points in the first 20 minutes. That included two 10-second violations in the first nine minutes.
“That press is one of the most impressive things in college basketball,” Akron forward Demetrius Treadwell said. “They’re like bulldogs out there.”
VCU turned it over just once in that first half and led 50-25 at halftime on a typically way-too-easy layup by Juvonte Reddic to beat the buzzer, and rarely has a score been so fitting. VCU was twice as good as Akron in every regard.
Then Troy Daniels hit a 3-pointer just a few seconds into the second half. And another one fewer than 90 seconds later. He’d have six of those by the time it was over. VCU had 10 players score, four in double figures, and with 6:14 left led by 48 points.
In six regular-season losses, Akron lost by a combined 49 points. Thursday night, they suffered the worst loss ever by a No. 12 seed and the worst-ever loss in the NCAA tournament by a Mid-American Conference team.
“As much as we struggled in the full court, we struggled more in the half court,” Dambrot said. “We couldn’t get in to anything, really.”
On Nick Harney’s 3-pointer with 5:19 left that made it 84-39, even the VCU fans cheered.
Walsh could have come back from the hospital healthy and with a band of slick-dribbling nurses in Akron jerseys ready to suit up, and it wouldn’t have mattered. VCU was too fast and too sharp. Akron was short on players and answers, having found itself where it wanted to be all season but there at the worst possible time to encounter the worst possible circumstances against the relentless Rams.
“They never let up,” Dambrot said. “They never let us get off the mat.”
These teams played last season in Akron, with VCU overcoming a 20-point deficit to score a 76-75 overtime win. The programs are linked not only by roots in the mid-major stratosphere, but by the close friendship of the coaches. VCU Coach Shaka Smart was an Akron assistant during Dambrot’s first three years on the job. They talk almost every day still, and that didn’t change this week.
“They have a great program,” Smart said of Akron. “They had a phenomenal season. This was just a better matchup for us tonight.”
VCU won two games early this season by 36 points and beat East Tennessee State by 51 in January, in case you were wondering how they handle mismatches when their coach isn’t on a best-friend basis with his counterpart.
“They’re just too good,” Dambrot said.
Said Smart: “The last thing I’d ever want to do to any coach, particularly one of my best friends, is to run up the score. That’s just not what we do.”
The Zips got the worst possible matchup and the worst possible ending. But when the bruised egos heal, they’ll reflect fondly upon a season that saw them win a national-best 19 straight games from mid-December to early March and accomplish almost all of their goals except winning an NCAA tournament game, including repeating as MAC champs and sweeping Ohio, which beat Akron in the MAC tournament last year and went to the Sweet 16.
VCU continued with the full-court press with the game well in hand — and even as the lead approached 50. Right or wrong, a look at VCU’s past results shows that’s what Smart does, and it wasn’t going to be any different against the team coached by the man he calls his best friend.
It was unnecessary, really. But like everything else in this game, it may have been different had Akron been able to stop it, even a little bit.
It was one of those nights — the worst one, and certainly the most humbling. VCU’s NCAA tournament record over the last three seasons is 7-2, so it’s used to these nights and this stage.
Something’s still dangling there for future teams; Akron is still chasing its first Div. I tournament win. Dambrot said he took “no offense” to Smart and VCU continuing to pressure through the final few minutes.
“It was a big boy’s game,” Dambrot said, long-resigned to the fact that the biggest and fastest boys wore the white jerseys and got all the easy baskets.
For multiple reasons, this was a night no one involved with Akron basketball will ever forget.