Akron zooms off to hot start in MAC play
The Zips don't mind playing close games anymore. After struggling early in the season winning close contests, the Zips won their fourth straight and eighth of their last nine games with a 68-63 decision over rival Ohio on Jan. 14.
During the four-game streak, the Zips had won their last three games -- all in the Mid-American Conference -- by a total margin of 11 points.
The home victory over the Bobcats followed three consecutive road wins.
Akron, which heads back on the road for a game at Buffalo on Jan. 18, has an experienced squad that's starting to get healthy at key positions.
"Those late-game stretches when the game is close, we're kind of used to that right now," forward Nick Harney said. "A lot of teams aren't used to that grind yet."
Coach Keith Dambrot stresses playing strong down the stretch, according to junior center Zeke Marshall.
"He's always preached that we need to be able to execute when the time is right because of the MAC championship and tournament," Marshall said. "That's how games are. We're not going to be blowing people out. If we can get wins like this, we can prepare ourselves more for March."
Following a bad game at Bowling Green, Marshall responded with 17 points, six rebounds and three blocks against Ohio. Marshall became the eighth player in Mid-American Conference history to block 200 shots.
The Zips won their first three league games by mounting comebacks. Although Dambrot didn't mind the 3-0 record, he would love for the Zips to make the games easier on him. Against Ohio, Alex Abreu hit a key 3-pointer to give the Zips a late lead that propelled them to the win.
"I think we're trying to break the record for having the lead less than any team in the world," Dambrot said. "In the league, for the three games we've played, we've barely led at all. (Alex) has the green light. He's a good player. He's helped us."
Abreu comes through at end in win over Ohio
--Sophomore point guard Alex Abreu hadn't scored a basket until he hit a 3-pointer late in a victory over Ohio on Jan. 14. Abreu's contributions can't get judged by his scoring. The Zips don't have much depth at the point guard position, putting added stress on Abreu to stay healthy and out of foul trouble. His defense, toughness and unselfishness are crucial for a team looking to return to the NCAA Tournament.
--Junior center Zeke Marshall blocked three shots in Akron's win over Ohio to make him the eighth player in Mid-American Conference history to block 200 shots. Marshall scored a game-high 17 points to lift his season average to a team-high 10.8 points per game. Marshall must improve his rebounding totals, though. He ranked third on the team in rebounding at 5.1 per game through Jan. 15.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 -- The Zips don't have a go-to player, but they feature seven players who were averaging between 7.5 to 10.8 points per game through Jan. 15. Zeke Marshall was averaging a team-leading 10.8 points, while Demetrius Treadwell was seventh on the team at 7.5 points. The balanced scoring mimics the production of last year's team.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think there's no love lost between the two teams. I know our guys don't like them, and I know they don't like us really. So in some ways, our team probably dislikes them more than Kent State." -- Akron coach Keith Dambrot, on the growing rivalry with Ohio.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at Buffalo, Jan. 18
KEY MATCHUPS: The Bulls can counter Akron's size and experience in the frontcourt with their own talented inside players. Javon McCrea and Mitchell Watt combine to average 32.5 points and 15.4 rebounds per game. Akron center Zeke Marshall's defense is essential to stop the Bulls from getting second-chance points and extending possessions.
--vs. Kent State, Jan. 21
KEY MATCHUPS: This contest will be a heated affair between two schools located just a few miles away from each other. The Zips have a balanced squad, but Kent State's Justin Greene is a high scorer averaging 20.7 points through three conference games. The Zips don't want to let Greene get into a rhythm or risk a long game.
FUTURES MARKET: The future looks good for the Zips to return to the MAC championship game. Through Jan. 15, the Zips had won seven straight conference games dating back to last year. They were ranked highly in the nation in 3-point percentage and 3-point defense. Opponents can't gear their game plan toward stopping just one player, with seven players averaging between 7.5 to 10.8 points per game.
--Sophomore F Nick Harney hit the game-winning shot in Akron's victory at Bowling Green on Jan. 11. Harney had led the Zips in scoring twice this season through Jan. 15, and he had raised his scoring average to 9.8 points, which ranked third on the team.
--Junior F Quincy Diggs' solid and consistent play often gets overlooked. Diggs is a valuable player for his versatility and all-around play. Diggs can take over a game with his scoring, rebounding or play-making. Through Jan. 15, he had started seven games, and he was fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 9.1 points.