Akron trusts in Tree
This is Tree.
Tree's story is different. His approach is different. When he arrives at the rim, the result is usually different.
Tree has a full name, Demetrius Treadwell. Tonight, Treadwell plays in his first NCAA tournament game, as Akron takes on VCU in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Growing up, Treadwell saw himself here, playing on college basketball's biggest stage, and had enough ability to think that was a realistic dream. At the beginning of this season, Akron coach Keith Dambrot saw his team here, playing on college basketball's biggest stage, and knew his team had enough talent to think all the dreams and university-sanctioned "Think Bigger" campaigns were legit.
There have been bumps in both roads, but Akron is here. Akron would not be here without the Demetrius Treadwell who has handled his formal responsibilities. On a team that has three key senior leaders even after losing its junior point guard, Tree has been a breakout star.
Tree is a 6'7 junior with an asterisk, a proposition 48 player as a freshman who had to pay his own way and wasn't allowed to work out with the team. He's on the road to graduate on time and, per NCAA rules, get that year of eligibility back. He's growing up -- leaps and bounds in some regards, a little at a time in others -- and growing into a key role that not only will help determine if Akron's third NCAA tournament run in five years finally gets extended past tonight with a win, but also in where the program goes over those next two seasons.
"Think Bigger?" Thank Tree.
Akron needed to win two games at last weekend's Mid-American Conference tournament to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Tree delivered double-doubles in both, his eighth and ninth such performances of the season, to help the Zips take down a senior-laden Ohio team that had got to the Sweet 16 last year and had visions of going back in the championship game.
Tree had 13 points, 10 rebounds and did a whole bunch else to get his team there that didn't show up on the stat sheet. Akron wasn't going to lose; not on Tree's watch.
"Treadwell beat us three times," Ohio coach Jim Christian said. "He guarded the point guard and fouled out our front court. I don't know another guy in college basketball who can do that. I've never seen one in 25 years be able to do that."
Tree is different. This 26-win Akron team is different, too. Dambrot calls it the best team he's coached, except for the one that had LeBron.
Yes, that LeBron. Dambrot coached the three-time NBA MVP in his first two years of high school before getting back into the college ranks. Akron is one of four teams in the country outfitted by Nike's LeBron line. Two others, Miami (Fla.) and Ohio State, are No. 2 seeds in this NCAA tournament. The other, Kentucky, won it last year.
The shoes don't make the team, and the fancy warmup suits don't differentiate the mid-majors who show up at the NCAA tournament, grab their gift bags, take their whippings and disappear quickly from the ones who stick around. The players do that, and Akron has players. Senior 7-footer Zeke Marshall is the first one off the bus and the one who brings the NBA scouts around. Marshall, 6'11 sophomore Pat Forsythe, 6'7 freshman sharpshooter Jake Kretzer and 6'7 combo forward Nick Harney join Tree in making Akron look a team that can see eye-to-eye with just about anybody.
Akron doesn't look a mid-major. Akron doesn't operate like a mid-major. Akron encountered a major problem exactly two weeks ago when point guard Alex Abreu was arrested on drug trafficking charges and suspended, but with Tree and Marshall dominating in stretches, the Zips survived the MAC tournament to get here.
"Like I've been saying we would," Tree said. "We knew there was one way in, and we took it."
Tree is certainly his own man. But he's a team player, too. He's Akron's leading rebounder at 7.9 per game, but he says the most important thing he brings to the Zips is leadership, "an all-out desire" to get every loose ball and win every game.
The most noticeable thing he brings to the Zips starting lineup is his collection of colorful socks. Rarely do they match the university's colors or even his shoes. Rarely does he wear the same ones twice.
They're red and green and pink and sometimes striped, and as long as Tree is carrying himself like an adult and doing what's expected in the classroom, Dambrot doesn't care if Tree's socks have purple polka dots and sing songs.
Win tonight, and on Saturday they might.
Dambrot cites the "emotional outbursts" as a key area in which Tree has grown. He sees Tree as more polished, more comfortable with his surroundings.
Tree was involved in a fight and got arrested on disorderly conduct charges last season. He was defending a friend, but he lost his cool. He'd occasionally lose his cool in a basketball setting and try to take his frustration out on a chair or a locker. Verbally, he'd take it out on Dambrot.
Some of those outbursts would be very public. Tree also had a tendency to become the opposite of public, keeping his door locked and his phone off when he was having a bad day.
"He's made me a little better coach," Dambrot said. "You have to treat different people differently. He's come a long way, and it's been a give and take.
"We've come to a pretty good agreement on how things are going to be handled and people are going to be treated. Tree handles his business."
Tree thinks that if Dambrot believes some of the behavior he saw in Tree's first two years at Akron was a little less than perfect, he should have seen Tree in his first two years of high school.
"Either I was going to school and being lazy or just not going at all," Tree said. "It was both. I was slacking off. What was I doing? Total knucklehead-type stuff."
Tree fell just short of the minimum academic standards for basketball eligibility as a freshman at Euclid High, near Cleveland.
"And my sophomore year, I wasn't even close to close," Tree said. "I didn't care about much of anything."
Now, the scouting report on Tree says that he's explosive, powerful, a gifted rebounder who also scores in multiple ways. Maybe the best way to slow him down is to send him to the foul line and take your chances.
"He's probably the most explosive athlete I've ever coached, other than LeBron," Dambrot said. "He's freaky."
For the scouting report on 16-year-old Demetrius Treadwell, we go to Tree.
"Lazy, immature and I didn't care enough at that time to push myself and be a better person," he said. "The road I was going down, it was leading to nowhere."
Short on credits and not on path to graduate from Euclid, Tree attended the Life Skills Center of Cleveland as a junior in high school.
By just showing up, Tree was making progress. Looking around, though, Tree realized he was not.
Life Skills is an alternative school, essentially a last-chance place. The thought he was actually running out of chances scared Tree.
"Not to say they were bad people there, but I didn't belong there," Tree said. "It was all headed the wrong way, and it was all my fault. I had family. I could have had basketball the whole time. I wanted to be wild.
"I don't know who I was, but I stopped being that person. My younger brothers kept my head on straight, honestly. Knowing that they look up to me, what they were seeing wasn't right. I wasn't setting the right example."
Tree has six younger brothers. Asked who else in his family has pushed him and driven him over the last four years, he says "my parents, my grandparents, my auntie. The only time I was ever alone was when I chose to be a bad person"
When the Zips clinched the MAC championship in Cleveland last Saturday night, the celebration was wild. When it came time for a formal team picture -- at least as formal as it gets with 60 people hugging the 60 people closest to them --- nobody could find Tree.
He was up in the stands, giving and receiving 60 hugs of his own. He loves Cleveland. He loves his parents, his grandparents, his brothers and his auntie, too.
It took a village.
Tree plays in the NCAA tournament tonight.
Tedd Kwasniak is a longtime and successful high school basketball coach in the Cleveland area. Speaking this week, he said he ended his "9,000th retirement" when some younger people he'd known "forever" encouraged him to join the Euclid staff of then-head coach Andy Suttell for the following season.
Kwasniak showed up for a spring open gym, and, well, the rest is better when Kwasniak tells it.
"This kid walks in the gym, and he's tall and impressive looking, but he's wearing these stupid-looking glasses," Kwasniak said. "He's standing under the rim with the ball, and then he just jumps up and dunks it. And I look at Andy, and I say, 'Well, who in the world is this kid?'
"And Coach Suttell tells me, 'That's Tree. He doesn't go to school here. He goes to Life Skills.
"I'm asking more questions, and Andy knows about him because, my gosh what head coach wouldn't want to know all about this kid? And not two more sentences into the conversation I already know he has a lot of demons. He's not doing the right things. But here's Tree just shooting around, and I'm watching him. I see the ability. And the story goes on, 'Tree won't get the grades. Tree doesn't respect authority.'
"And I just thought, 'Well, we'd better see if we can change that. Because the authority on that dunk and the way he releases it when he shoots tells me he can win 10 games for us by himself.'"
Tree got his life in order. He got back to Euclid. He made the grades, helped the team, won some minor individual honors for his work in his one season of high school basketball and started attracting college interest. Kent State, Ohio, Akron and West Virginia showed the most interest.
They really took notice when Kwasniak started telling people that Tree was maybe the best big man he'd ever coached.
That list, mostly from Kwasniak's time as both an assistant and head coach at Villa-Angela St. Joseph High School, is long. It includes former Ohio State star Treg Lee, as well as former pros Eric Riley, Stan Kimbrough and Kevin Edwards. Jerome Davis and Dale Thomas were MAC players -- and darn good ones. Brian Hocevar went to UNLV and to Cleveland State.
And here's Kwasniak, insisting that Treadwell is as good any of them. That's he's as unique as any of them.
"They all had strengths," Kwasniak said. "They all had parts. (Thomas) was very strong. A few of them had things that Tree doesn't have, but none of them have that whole package.
"Talent-wise, he just sticks out. He could jump. Strong body. He can shoot. But even in that one year coaching him, when he was a one-year guy who hadn't been eligible, he was out there telling the other guys where they were supposed to be. That basketball IQ paired with those natural tools? It's unbelievable."
Before Tree could really take off, young Demetrius Treadwell lost focus again.
"He quit going to school after the basketball season," Kwasniak said. "If he wasn't strong enough to squish me, I'd have grabbed him and screamed, 'What are you thinking? You're throwing this away.'"
Little by little, Tree started to listen. He said he'd long considered himself "a great athlete but a pretty sorry basketball player," but that one season of high school ball had given him reason to believe in his basketball abilities. He thought about his younger brothers again, and his parents, and how he'd gone from a very nervous high school basketball player in his first game to one who didn't want to think about having played his last.
"I really did think about the chance at a free education," Tree said, "and what a dummy you have to be to pass that up."
Tree followed the path his coaches and counselors set out and got his GED. Along with Harney, another Cleveland-area kid who'd had an up-and-down high school career that included academic struggles, Tree decided against junior college or prep school and chose Akron and the one-year trial period he and Harney had been offered.
The real mid-major success stories don't happen without overlooked or previously dismissed players making good. This Akron season, wherever it goes from here, wouldn't have happened without Tree.
"The fact that he never quit, it says that he has somebody in his life who really, really cared," Kwasniak said. "I remember the parents. I remember the grandparents. Anytime the subject of college came up, I just told them I knew Keith Dambrot wasn't going anywhere at Akron, and he's a guy who cares.
"The people who know Tree -- and I'm not speaking for the family; I'm speaking for coaches and teachers and anybody else -- like Tree. He's a very intelligent young man who marches to his own beat. But that beat now, that's basketball. He went and got his GED because he wasn't going to throw that away."
Tree's talent was obvious the first time Dambrot saw him, so much so that the Akron staff immediately started digging into whether Tree was a risk, a project, or a combination of both.
"We did our homework," Dambrot said. "Everybody liked him as a person. We knew we weren't getting a rotten guy.
"He's an individual, maybe a little of a non-conformist. But if you have a good heart and good mind and you mold that, you can be successful. And Tree has great people behind him. We met the parents, and we asked questions.
"They weren't going to let him quit, either. A lot of times, the family saves the kid."
It takes a village.
"I've heard my story is very unique, but that's the way it happened," Tree said. "That's my path. I'm not a quitter. When I set my mind to doing something, I usually do it."
His Twitter profile reads: "Im just Tree. From Cleveland. Hooping for Akron University."
No apostrophe. No further explanation. No care that it's really called the University of Akron.
He's just Tree.
He scored 14 points and had 12 rebounds in the MAC semifinals last Friday, then had the aforementioned 13 and 10 last Saturday for his second double-double in three games vs. Ohio University this season. Following the third, he went into the stands and celebrated with his family.
"I knew he would play like that in Cleveland," Dambrot said, "because that's the way he's played all year."