NCAA Tournament profile: Akron Zips
First in a recurring series analyzing the NCAA Tournament chances and possible bracket positioning of Ohio college basketball teams
RECORD: 20-4 (19-4 vs. Div. I opponents)
CONFERENCE RECORD: 11-0
RPI: 51* (through Feb. 13)
BEST WINS: Middle Tennessee State, Ohio
BIG GAMES AHEAD: Feb. 22 vs. North Dakota State; Feb. 27 at Ohio
Akron keeps winning basketball games; Wednesday's win at Eastern Michigan made 16 straight, currently the nation's longest win streak.
The Zips join Butler, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Kansas, Pittsburgh and Syracuse as the only programs to win at least 20 games in each of the past eight seasons. That's both pretty good company and a pretty good indicator of sustained success.
This Akron team is looking for success now, and on a larger scale. The Zips are trying to repeat as Mid-American Conference regular season champions and get to the league's conference tournament title game for the seventh straight season. They obviously want to win, it, too and assure themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
This team will only consider getting there -- and winning once it's there -- a true success.
But getting there is going to require a strong finish. If the Zips don't win the automatic bid, their status right now as an at-large team would have to be viewed as iffy. A 16-game win streak would certainly qualify as a high point of any season and by any standard, so what happens if Akron falters from here, even just once or twice?
Any at-large chance might require a 16-0 finish in Mid-American Conference play. That's just reality when your best non-conference wins are Middle Tennessee, Princeton and N.C. Asheville. There's a reason Akron coach Keith Dambrot was willing to give up a home game in the BracketBusters and go searching for a quality win, and as (bad) luck would have it next Friday's BracketBuster opponent, North Dakota St., isn't exactly peaking.
Digging deeper into Akron's eventual at-large and/or seeding case, starting forwards Nick Harney and Demetrius Treadwell were suspended the first three games of the season due to an administrative error. The Zips lost two of those games, at Coastal Carolina and to Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico, and their absence will be highlighted on the Zips' tournament profile sheet when their status is discussed by the selection committee.
That loss to Oklahoma State, currently ranked No. 16 and all but a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, is especially frustrating because, even without Treadwell and Harney, Akron had the ball and a chance to win at the end of regulation and lost in overtime. Akron's only losses with its full roster came on the road at Creighton and Detroit, both top-100 RPI teams and possible NCAA Tournament teams.
The question with Akron, though, comes down less to losses and more to wins -- quality, not quantity. The RPI formula says Akron's strength of schedule is 160th; by the Sagarin ratings formula it's 185th. Even if Akron wins out, it would still likely be a 12 or 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Zips are doing what teams just don't do in the MAC. Only two teams in the league's modern era have made it through the league schedule with just one loss, and not since 1984 has a MAC team gone 11 games into the league schedule without losing.
The Zips' MAC dominance is partly due to their physicality and post presence, and partly due to the fact that the conference as a whole is pretty terrible. There's just no other way to put it, not when only four MAC teams have winning records entering the weekend and seven teams stand 225 or worse in RPI.
The MAC puts automatically advances its top two teams to the semifinals of the league tournament, and Akron is one win away from clinching that. With a game at second-place Ohio looming in less than two weeks, though, nothing is truly clinched. Not a league title, certainly nothing in the way of a postseason bid. This program boldly and confidently adopted the slogan "Think Bigger" at the beginning of the season, and when the shots are dropping Akron is pretty close to complete.
But for the Zips to bring their size and experience to college basketball's biggest stage in five weeks, they have to stay pretty close to perfect now. Any top 50 RPI team with 25-plus wins is going to make a strong case to the committee, but Akron would be wise to take it out of the committee's hands except for the seeding by winning the MAC's automatic bid.
Only then can these Zips truly and safely think bigger.