The stage is set. When the clock hits 6:30 tonight for the third time this season, No. 2 Ohio and No. 1 Akron will face off on the hardwood. This time it's really for all the marbles as the winner not only earns bragging rights, but the MAC Championship and an automatic NCAA berth. It's the third time in four seasons the final game has come down to these two heavyweights. Ohio's won the previous two championship match ups, including last seasons 64-63 thriller. But Akron has outplayed Ohio twice this season in head to head battles. Coming from behind in both.
But the Zips, as has been mentioned countless times over the past few weeks, are without junior point guard Alex Abreu who is facing felony marijuana possession and trafficking charges. I wouldn't bring it up if it wasn't such a big deal, but it is. Abreu was the main reason for Akron's success this season over Ohio, averaging 18.5 points, nine assists and 4.5 rebounds against the 'Cats.
Though Zeke Marshall (16.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and three blocks) and Demetrius Treadwell (18 points, 9 rebounds) also put up impressive numbers Abreu's presence will be missed Saturday night. As evidenced by the Zips recent struggles against Kent State including their regular season finale loss that gave Ohio a share of the MAC regular season title.
Freshman backup point guard Carmelo Betancourt has been thrust into the starting lineup, with very poor results. Through the last two games he's put up just six points and six assists through 47 minutes as the Zips have often went with a point guard-by-committee system on the floor.
While Ohio's struggled in its past three games as well, its been impressive in the gritty way the team pulls out the wins. Also, Ohio benefits from having super-point guard and reigning MAC Player of the Year D.J. Cooper on the roster who has shined against the Zips in the previous two MAC Championship match ups averaging 23 points, six assists and three steals.
By comparison, Marshall (who is now tasked with carrying this team to victory) has averaged a meager eight points and four rebounds against the 'Cats in the MAC Championships. Even though he's stepped up big time against Ohio this season, and had a monster game Friday night against Kent State (18 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks) to advance to tonight's championship game, it's hard to imagine the Zips can beat Ohio for a third time this season without Abreu.
The odds are in Ohio's favor in more than one way. They're 6-1 all-time in MAC Championship games, compared to Akron's 2-4 mark (0-2 against Ohio). Also, no team has beaten a squad twice in the regular season and again in the MAC Championship game since Kent State did in the 2007-2008 season. Kent State's opponent that year? Akron. The head coach who lead the Golden Flashes to that feat? Current Ohio head coach Jim Christian. So it's hard to see the Zips pulling off such a daunting task. Also, Ohio hasn't been as fired up to beat the Zips in the championship game as they will be tonight.
The rivalry has reached new heights this season, including twitter hostilities between the two squads and some very physical play on court. Ohio has been dealing with a bruised ego all season after failing all season to live up to high preseason expectations. The fact that Ohio won a co-MAC regular season title with Akron despite dropping both head-to-head match ups in the regular season has undoubtedly made the bad taste in Ohio's mouth much worse. They will be fired up to exact revenge, with their leader playing his usual March superhero role while Akron is without it's fiery leader. While there's no doubt it will certainly be an exciting game, after all a third round between these two can't be anything less, it's really hard to see Akron coming out victorious in this one.
Saturday, Mar 16, 2013, 5:30 PM CDT
Quicken Loans Arena - Cleveland, OH