Akron Zips Men's Basketball Preview

Eric P. Mull-US PRESSWIRE

The Akron Zips men's basketball team is one of, if not the, most consistent teams in the MAC. There have been no down years during Keith Dambrot's tenure, and this team should be one of the best that Dambrot has ever had. There is a lot of talent on this team, but they face a daunting schedule and must rebound from the huge loss of senior Quincy Diggs.

"Think Bigger"

That's the mantra of the Akron Zips men's basketball team for the upcoming 2012-2013 season. It shows you that coach Keith Dambrot isn't complacent with his recent success. In his mind, the Zips should start thinking more about NCAA Tournament success. Of course, they have to get there first, but to have that mindset provides a level of confidence that this team desperately needs.

The usual cast of characters return, with some fresh new faces that look to make an impact this year. I'll dive into what happened last year, look at who graduated, the new guys, what makes a "dream season" and finally make my sure-to-be-perfect predictions.

Last year:

Not to toot my own horn, but this is what I said in last year's Akron preview:

This looks like another potential 20-win team. They will have to manage a tough road MAC West portion of their schedule and a difficult but manageable first two games at Miami and at Bowling Green. If the Zips can win those two, that momentum should carry them to a perfect conference record heading into the home Kent State game. Dambrots’ teams usually get better as the season goes on (clichés!) and the Zips will look to build on a February that brings six conference foes to the JAR. Look for a top-2 seed in the tournament and another MAC Championship title game appearance.

I was pretty dead on, except for the whole being undefeated going into the Kent State game. After four whole years of watching Zips Basketball, you kind of get the feeling on how the season will turn out.

The season started with a monumental victory over Mississippi State in Starkville as a part of the 2k Sports Classic. The Bulldogs weren't great, but also weren't terrible as they finished with 20 wins and went .500 in the SEC. Visions of grandeur creeped into the Zips' minds after that 10-point road win. A couple of road losses brought the team back to earth. They righted the ship in conference play, winning the MAC regular season crown and a #1 seed in the MAC Tournament with a 13-3 conference record. Akron cruised to the MAC Championship game and beat Kent State for the third straight time in getting there. The dream ended with a heartbreaking loss to Ohio in the MAC Championship, and the season ended in a heartbreaking loss to Northwestern in the first round of the NIT.

Who graduated:

PF Nikola Cvetinovic-The former heart and soul of the Zips is now playing in Europe, for AEK Larnaca out of Cyprus. Cvetinovic had a pretty illustrious career for the Blue and Gold, but he left you with a feeling of what could have been. He started as a freshman and was a huge presence inside. His flaws, though, sometimes overshadowed what he did well. I'm not sure the Akron Athletics Department tracks traveling violations, but Cvetinovic may have been the program's leader. His style of Euro-ball helped him in some ways, but hurt him in others. It seemed like he was trying too hard at some points, driving aggressively to the basket and missing seemingly easy layups. He also developed a penchant for taking three point shots during his senior year, which seemed a bit odd to those watching. Many times I held my breath when he raised up from deep, and he ended up with a surprising 33.3% mark.

His leadership and intensity though, will be missed. Whenever the Zips seemed to get lazy, Cvetinovic was the one to get them going again. The senior class of Brian Walsh, Chauncey Gilliam and Zeke Marshall need to fill the void that was left by Cvetinovic in this regard.

SG Brett McClanahan-Oh man, where do I start. I should have seen it as an omen when he went 1-10 against Mississippi State. Sometimes, when a player has a season like McClanahan had last year, you just have to shake your head. How did that happen? Here's his stats from 2010-2011 and 2011-2012:

Season FG% 3PT% Points Per Game
2011-2012 42.3 38.9 10.0
2012-2013 29.5 28.2 4.4

Yeesh. Hard to tell what happened there. It looked like he was on the upswing of his career, coming into a huge senior season where he would put up 12-15 points per game and shoot lights-out from deep. Obviously, that didn't happen. I feel for the kid, you could tell he wanted to fix whatever was wrong. It was tough to watch, and I hope last season doesn't discourage him from the game of basketball.

G/F Quincy Diggs-Okay, so Diggs didn't graduate (and Dambrot's even worried that may not happen). But he was suspended for the year for violating the university student code of conduct. I penned a few words here, and pretty much feel the same way now. He'll be able to be reinstated at the end of the Spring semester, but I'm sure he'd have to do a lot of extra work to get his roster spot back. I mentioned earlier that big statement win at Mississippi State. Leading scorer that night? Diggs, with 19. As I said before, the loss is pretty significant. It's not a death sentence, but it hurts.

I read a John Feinstein book a few years ago called "Next Man Up." You may or may not like Feinstein's writing, but this book is fascinating. Basically, he takes a look at the Baltimore Ravens and tries to figure out why they are so successful. The "Next Man Up" theme is played out in the book, like when someone gets hurt in training camp. The team didn't sulk and wonder what the season would be like without that player. Whoever the backup was now had to make up for what the team was missing with that starter injured. I'd recommend this book to any sports fan, by the way.

That's the philosophy Akron needs to have this season: Next Man Up. Be it Josh Egner, Blake Justice, or one of the freshmen, someone needs to step up. Diggs averaged 25.5 minutes, 8.5 points and 3 boards last year. Collectively, as a team, redundantly, the metaphorical slack needs to be picked up by someone(s) in order for the Zips to have a successful season. It's not the most ideal of circumstances, but it's the one the Zips currently have to deal with.

Newcomers:

C Pat Forsythe-What if I told you that the most important newcomer on the Zips team this year wasn't a freshman? (You just got Brad Meltzer'd). Forsythe, a transfer from West Virginia, came to the Zips in order to be closer to his father, who is legally blind. Just curious, but can you be illegally blind? Is there some sort of law for blindness? I digress. He didn't get a lot of playing time under Bob Huggins, but that doesn't mean he can't contribute at this level. At 6'11 and 240 pounds, he can give Akron something that nobody else in the conference can compete with: two solid centers. Pair him with Zeke Marshall (who I'll get to later), and you instantly have a pun-intended HUGE match-up problem on the court. But, that's all depending on if he shakes out or not at this level. Remember Da'Shonte Riley, the transfer from Syracuse who was supposed to be a huge get for Eastern Michigan? Almost a non-factor last year. There's one aspect of the game, though, that I think the addition of Forsythe helps the most.

Practice. Yes, I'm talking about practice. More specifically about Marshall. Do you get where I'm going yet? Here's my reasoning: Marshall has never been able to practice against someone his size who can push him around and make him earn every point and rebound he gets. Forsythe may be better than any true center in the conference save Marshall. Getting able to practice against the best should make game situations pieces of cake for him. I say should because we haven't seen anything yet. But, it's one of the top things I'm looking for early in the season.

PG Carmelo Betancourt-Oh no, another Puerto Rican point guard for the Zips? You bet your bottom dollar. This guy may possibly be a carbon copy of Alex Abreu, with or without the cockiness. And that is something that the MAC should be scared silly about. I'm not big into making predictions, but I can see this guy on the Freshmen All-Conference Team if not the Freshman of the Year.

SF Reggie McAdams-McAdams may be more well-known in Ohio High School Football circles than for his basketball prowess. He's a two-time First-team All-Ohio Quarterback (paging Terry Bowden) and was the fifth ranked senior basketballer in Ohio by ESPN last year. Dambrot likes athletes, and this kid sure is one. It's going to be tough to redshirt a player with this much talent.

SF Jake Kretzer-A likely redshirt candidate, but it may be hard to do that too seeing as he's 6'7, 210 pounds and can play any position. The scrimmages tonight and on Saturday will tell us a lot about the type of playing time that Kretzer and McAdams will see.

Dream Season:

Here are a few goals I think the Zips should have for the 2012-13 season:

  • Win a game or two in the Puerto Rico Tip-off Tournament--If I'm being honest, I think the Zips have the longest shot to win a game in this tournament. Here's who they have to face: Oklahoma State, UNC-Asheville/Tennessee, then North Carolina State/Penn State/Providence/UMass. Let's assume they lose to Oklahoma State, beat Asheville, then face Penn State or Providence. While one win would be nice, two would show this team may be special. But then again, if they beat Oklahoma State, Tennessee is only decent and NC State should probably make it out of the bottom half. Could they make it to the finals? They are playing in Abreu's hometown (he said it's a five minute walk from the arena to his house). With these early season tournaments, you just never know.
  • Go 3-1 against Creighton, Detroit, Middle Tennessee and Cleveland State--These are the best mid-majors on your schedule. If you split with them it's tolerable, but to go 3-1 would mean a lot. If they can beat preseason #16 Creighton in Omaha, watch out.
  • 13-3 in conference, 1 or 2 seed in the MAC Tournament--It's looking like a down year in the MAC, and especially in the MAC East. Kent State and Buffalo both lost a ton, so it still should be Ohio and Akron at the top. There's no reason why this team shouldn't go 14-2 or 13-3 in the conference.
  • Beat Ohio in MAC Championship--Not the ultimate crown jewel, but it's definitely number two. After last year's exciting final, it'd be great to see a rematch with that much on the line. Plus, this is probably the biggest rivalry in the conference basketball-wise.
  • Repeat Ohio's success in NCAA tournament--If there's a knock on Dambrot, it's that he hasn't won in the Tournament. He's come close, losing to both Notre Dame and Gonzaga by respectful margins. But, he needs to win one to cement his place in Akron lore. It's going to be hard as a 11-14 seed, but as Ohio showed last year, it's possible. This is where I think the whole "Think Bigger" concept is coming from, as the thought should be "let's not just get there, let's go far."

What will happen:

Attention: THIS IS WHAT ACTUALLY WILL HAPPEN I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE.

  • Akron loses to Oklahoma State, beats UNC-Asheville (a quality mid-major win) and beats Providence/Penn State for 5th place in the Puerto Rico Tip-off
  • Zips split, losing to Creighton and Detroit and beating Cleveland State and Middle Tennessee.
  • They finish up the non-conference season at 10-3 or 9-4
  • Amass a record of 13-3 in the MAC, losing at Ohio, at Buffalo and at Bowling Green/Toledo/Kent State
  • #2 seed in the MAC Tournament (Ohio goes 14-2)
  • Win the MAC Championship in thrilling fashion over Ohio (D.J. Cooper makes a free throw he needs to miss)
  • Lose by 5 to UCLA or someone in the NCAA Tournament

Akron certainly has the talent to go far. Very far, in fact. To do that, they need one guy to be elite: Marshall. There's no reason he shouldn't be. He came in as the highest ranked recruit in MAC history (#36 I believe), and has arguably not lived up to the hype. Yes, he can block shots with the best of them. But when will we see him dominate? One coach (unnamed of course) said that Marshall is "one of the softest players in the league," in this CBS Sports MAC Preview. Marshall's goal has seemed to be to get stronger every off-season. Clearly that's happened, but not enough to make a huge difference in the game. On top of that, he sometimes makes boneheaded plays (a.k.a. hedging on screens out past the three point line) that he gets called for a foul on every time. If he can fix that and develop a great post move he'll be untouchable.

The season really hinges on Marshall's improvement. Sure, a lot of things have to happen along the way, but "Z" needs to take over this conference and put the team on his back like Greg Jennings, doe. If Marshall improves by leaps and bounds, he can be the player us Zips fans thought he would be as a freshman. He may even sneak his way into the second round of the NBA draft. Now, that my friends, would be thinking bigger.

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