The Akron Zips play their first-ever game in the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament this afternoon as the #13 seed in the South Bend, Ind. Regional. Their opponent will be the #4 seed Purdue Boilermakers, and the game will be a true road contest for Akron. Purdue is a host site for the first and second round, so West Lafayette, Ind. will be the site of the game. It will begin a half-hour after the end of the first game, which begins at 11:00 a.m. EST; the start time should be approximately 1:30 p.m. EST.
2014 NCAA Women's Tournament
2014 NCAA Women's Tournament
The Zips (23-9, 14-4 MAC) had a very enigmatic journey to this point. They played extremely well at home during the non-conference season but struggled on the road. They opened the season with a 29-point win against Florida Atlantic, then followed it with a 47-point destruction of Tennessee Tech during which they scored 118 points. They lost the next two on the road against current NCAA Tournament teams Dayton and Wright State, but their defense struggled in those contests, allowing 94 and 90 points respectively.
Starting with those losses to the Flyers and Raiders, Akron lost five out of seven games. After their only road non-conference win, a 16-point victory at Canisius, the Zips lost back-to-back games in California. They finally returned home for an impressive win over George Mason, but then lost by 16 a Cincinnati. Akron finally concluded their non-conference slate with home wins over Rochester College and Youngstown State.
Akron's early-season jitters continued as the MAC season began. They handed Ball State a nine-point loss in the conference opener but followed that with three straight losses. The first two defeats were at the hands of the MAC's two top teams (Bowling Green, Central Michigan), but the third was at Miami, who ultimately finished 4-14 in conference play.
The Zips finally got things turned around with a solid 26-point home win over Kent State, and that started a string of four straight wins by 20 or more points. Their victims included Eastern Michigan and Toledo on the road. They ultimately reeled off a school-record 13 wins in a row and easily secured the #3 seed in the conference tournament. That streak only ended in what amounted to a meaningless season finale against Bowling Green.
In the MAC Tournament, Akron earned a bye to the third round in Cleveland. They dispatched Toledo and Central Michigan without much difficulty to get to the championship game. Then, in their second straight MAC title game appearance, the Zips made their dreams come true. They took a comfortable halftime lead against Ball State and cruised through the second half of a 79-68 victory that placed them into the NCAA tourney.
Akron has a high-powered, multifaceted offense that can score from almost any point on their end of the floor. Theirs is the best offense in the MAC, as it scores the most points and utilizes the best shooting, both from the floor and the free throw line. They're also tops in assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, and offensive rebound percentage.
Kacie Cassell, who leads the MAC with 6.3 assists per game and is second with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.4, runs the offense. There are often several scoring options on the floor whether its herself, Carly Young, Hannah Plybon or Anita Brown. However, one thing is crystal clear -- the primary options for the Zips are Rachel Tecca and Hanna Luburgh.
Tecca and Luburgh are the top two scorers in the MAC and both rank in the top 20 nationally. They average a combined 45 points per game and have scored a total of 1,436 points this season. One of them led Akron in scoring in all but one of the team's 32 games, and in each of those, one or the other scored at least 20 points. In other words, Purdue cannot simply focus on one player and use double-teams to eliminate both scoring threats. If one isn't scoring, the other will.
The one primary issue for Akron is their defense, which ranks 10th out of the MAC's 12 teams. They allow an average of 72.7 points per game and have given up at least 80 points on seven occasions. That number includes four games in which they allowed at least 90 and one in which they gave up triple digits. However, their defense has been better of late. None of those seven times occurred in the team's last 12 games. In fact, Akron has allowed below their current season average in nine of those 12 games.
Their scoring average allowed is also a little deceiving and, to a certain extend, is a result of their up-tempo offense. The Zips are fourth in the MAC by allowing teams to shoot 39.6 percent from the floor and are second in the league by allowing only 29.1 percent of 3-pointers to fall. They're also second in the league in one of the most important categories, rebounding margin.
The Purdue Boilermakers (21-8, 11-5 Big Ten) are 4-0 against MAC teams this season, but don't let that fool you. Those games have generally been very, very close. Ball State gave Purdue a serious run in the season-opener before falling by just six, 63-57. One week later, Toledo hosted the Boilermakers at Savage Arena and fell by just two, 81-79. In late December, Bowling Green's stingy defense held Purdue to just 57 points in a nine-point loss. Central Michigan followed that by scoring 97 points on Purdue before falling 109-97.
In other words, despite the seed difference, don't think for a second that Akron can't win this game. It would be very, very difficult to argue at this point that Akron is not better than all of those other four teams, so if those games were close,w hat will happen here?
Like Akron, Purdue began their conference schedule with a 1-3 start. Their losses included games against Ohio State and Michigan, both of whom lost to Bowling Green in November. However, they responded with four wins in a row, and their early-Big Ten play included wins over NCAA Tournament teams Nebraska and Penn State. They finished the regular season with six straight wins but dropped their Big Ten Tournament opener to Iowa, 87-80.
Purdue features an offense that ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 74.6 points per game. However, their defense is 10th out of 12 teams and allows 68.2 points per game. Their defensive unit ranks in the bottom half of the Big Ten in most team defense statistical categories. Individually, the Boilermakers have a more balanced scoring attack but rely most heavily on Courtney Moses (15.7 PPG) and K.K. Houser (15.2 PPG). Both Whitney Bays and April Wilson also average in double digits. Moses is particularly dangerous from beyond the arc, where she's made 76 3-pointers at a clip of 46 percent.
So, who will win? As we noted above, MAC teams have been very competitive against Purdue this season, including the games played in West Lafayette. The Zips are an experience-laden roster that should not be intimidated by the bright lights of this stage. They also have what very few teams in their position have -- two legitimate big-time scoring threats and a serious presence both inside and outside. Purdue will get their points here, but so will Akron. These players have been through an incredible journey and badly want to win for their coach and themselves -- and we're calling for the upset here.
Predicted final score: Akron 85, Purdue 81