March 13, 2012; Evanston, IL, USA; Akron Zips forward Quincy Diggs (22) reacts against the Northwestern Wildcats during the second half of the first round of the 2012 NIT Men's Basketball Tournament at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern Wildcats defeated the Akron Zips 76-74. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-US PRESSWIRE
MACsketball 2011-12 was pronounced dead on March 25, 2012. We continue our look back on the season with a series of recaps focusing on each team.
Record: 22-11, 13-3 MAC
Finish: First round of NIT
MAC Tournament: Lost to OHIO in Championship 64-63
A season that started off so well ultimately ended in unexpected fashion.
The Zips first game, a win over SEC school Mississippi State, showed the potential that this team had. Most knew coming in to the season that Akron was going to be a good basketball team, but weren't sure how good. This win had the chance to propel the Zips to unheard of places, most namely a possible at-large bid and potentially a Sweet Sixteen appearance.
Oh how things change.
After the huge win, Akron lost to both Valparaiso and Duquesne. Those are good teams in their own right, but were wins that the Zips needed to have to continue to build that at-large resume. After a home win over an undermanned Detroit squad, Akron got blown out by West Virginia and Middle Tennessee State, and lost a close game at Cleveland State. Suddenly, what looked like a Sweet Sixteen squad just a month before was sitting at 3-5.
That was only one of the hills on the roller-coaster season that the Zips had.
A great start in conference play didn't carry over to the end of the season, where Akron was blown out in Athens and lost at home to Buffalo with a chance to win the MAC regular season title. Although they eventually won at Kent State, this still seemed to be a cause for concern.
The new tournament format helped them, as the one seed advanced all the way to the semifinals. After beating Kent for a third time this year, the Zips faced OHIO in the MAC Championship. And we all know how that went.
The Zips traveled to Evanston, Illinois to take on B1G foe Northwestern in the NIT. They had a great chance to win that game after being down early. Akron couldn't come through in the big game when they needed it, which rang true more than once during the season.
While the season was successful in many ways, the end goal was not reached. Making it to the Big Dance is the goal every year for this team, not just making it to the MAC Championship game. While being in that game for six straight years is impressive in itself, Akron has not been able to do what it truly wants to do (and what OHIO did): win games in the tournament.
Gone: Nikola Cvetinovic leaves the Zips program as one of the most accomplished players of the last decade (and just as I finally remembered how to spell his surname). He finished with 1,158 points, which puts him at 25th in Akron basketball history. He also scrapped up 675 rebounds along with 232 turnovers, of which 225 were likely traveling violations. Cvetinovic won an astounding 92 games to only 49 losses as a Zip.
While he was one of the best to ever put on a Zips uniform, he also might have been one of the most frustrating players to watch. After starting his freshman year, it was apparent that he would be the one to take over the MAC. His junior season was his best yet, averaging 11.7 points and 7 rebounds. That year he led the Zips to the promised land as a #15 seed. But, due to whatever reason, his senior year fell short of his solid 2010-2011 numbers. His scoring and rebounding averages were down, and so it seems was his intensity. He didn't seem to fit into the offense as well, as Keith Dambrot was more open to pushing the ball down the court after a missed shot instead of setting up the half-court offense.
Cvetinovic will be hard to replace next season. His leadership qualities were second to none, and his European-style game was something that has not been seen in the MAC. Sophomore Demetrius Treadwell will pick up the slack at the four, as he showed flashes of brilliance this year akin to another Akron great Romeo Travis.
The other loss is shooting guard Brett McClanahan. To say McClanahan's senior season was bad is like saying the sky is blue or that Illinois has a MACohol problem. Let's go to the grim statistics. 29.5% from the field. 28% from beyond the arc. 62% from the free throw line. And he's a shooting guard. He seems like a good guy, but he did not have the type of year that the Zips needed him to. Only playing two minutes in the MAC Championship game and four minutes in the NIT loss to Northwestern really showed the confidence level that Dambrot had in him. He helped the team win many games over the course of his career, but it is really a mystery as to why his confidence dropped so much his senior year.
Brian Walsh took most of his minutes this year, and will likely continue to start next year. Walsh had a great season after transferring from Xavier, and has a chance to become one of the MAC's best shooting guards.
Bright Spots: We weren't sure how all of the pieces would fit together. Losing seniors Steve McNees, Darryl Roberts, Brett McKnight and Mike Bardo was sure to hurt. Of the six newcomers, it was unclear who was likely to play and if the freshmen Blake Justice and Deji Ibitayo were redshirt candidates. From what Dambrot got out of his newcomers, he has to like what he saw.
Dambrot's echoing statement in December was that we hadn't seen what his team could do yet. Sophomore forward Nick Harney was suspended for five games that month and Treadwell was suspended two in late November. Add that to the two transfers' (Walsh and Chauncey Gilliam) inexperience and it was easy to see why the Zips were struggling early in the season after that huge win against Mississippi State.
It all came together at the start of conference play, where the Zips reeled off twelve wins in thirteen games, with the only loss to Buffalo in Alumni Arena. Akron was playing a step above every other team in the conference, and it was mainly due to having the whole team together for the first time.
While the season ended sourly, the team came together and really dominated the conference for a good portion of the year. They had a chance to win almost every game they played, and lost many close games. In fact, eight of the eleven losses were by a total of 25 points.
Of course, all the main cogs return for yet another run to that NCAA Tournament bid. Alex Abreu, with one more season under his belt, will look to be more aggressive. Quincy Diggs needs go back to his normal position, as he struggled at some instances playing point when Abreu was on the bench. Zeke Marshall took another step forward this year, and showed that he could be a dominant player in the conference. The offseason will be important for everyone, as they know they need to improve in every facet in the game. This team has the potential to be very good in the upcoming season, and may be able to capitalize on a somewhat down year for the MAC.
The schedule could be one of the most challenging Dambrot has ever put together next year. Akron plays in the Puerto Rico Tip-off (hate to reference Wikipedia, but can't find any other valid news articles) against teams like Providence, North Carolina State, Southern Mississippi, Oklahoma State, Xavier, Tennessee and Penn State. There is a return trip to Creighton from the Bracketbuster match-up two years ago, along with likely home games Cleveland State, Marshall and Middle Tennessee. The Zips will also likely head up to Detroit, the Horizon League Champs this season.
All in all, this season showed a lot of promise. Keith Dambrot now knows what he has in his newcomers, and is adding high profile scorers in redshirt freshman Blake Justice and true freshmen Jake Kretzer and Reggie McAdams. Of course, being a high scorer in high school doesn't exactly translate to the college game, but Dambrot will know early what each will be able to contribute next season. Another Puerto Rican point guard arrives next year as well, as Carmelo Betancourt joins his country-mate in the Zips backcourt. Little is known about Betancourt, but Zips fans seem to be expecting a lot out of him next year.
1. Will Zeke Marshall take another step next year?
Marshall took another step in the right direction this season, but ultimately still needs to do a lot of work if he wants to play in the NBA one day. He had a great year this year, scoring 10.4 points per game, grabbing 5.4 rebounds per game, and swatting away three shots per game. His shooting percentage was the highest in his career, and his free throw percentage improved a remarkable twelve percent. Areas of improvement for Marshall still include staying out of foul trouble and not getting emotional about calls that go against him. If he does that and continues to get stronger, he could (and probably should) be the player of the year next year.
2. Will the turnover problems be fixed?
One of the Zips main problems were the amount of turnovers. Akron had 480 turnovers last season, good for fourteen per game and near the bottom of the conference. That needs to be shored up, as turnovers were big momentum killers over the Zips past year. Focusing on fundamentals in the offseason will be huge, and a good coach like Dambrot knows that.
3. How do the Zips top a talented OHIO team who are likely to be the favorites next year?
It will be seen how a new coach at OHIO affects the team. When a coach leaves, normally some players transfer right away. But, that hasn't happened yet (save for oft-used TyQuane Goard). If someone like Jeff Boals, an assistant at Ohio State and former Bobcat, gets the job, this team will still be in great shape. Akron was right with the Bobcats all year, and were a few points short of being in the NCAA tournament. They were two pretty even teams, and will continue to be next year.