Back in October the Mid-American Conference announced its preseason media poll, with Akron and Toledo being the favorites to win their respective divisions. Fast-forward nearly three months and things are shaping up almost exactly as predicted. The Akron Zips (11-5, 3-0 MAC) and Toledo Rockets (14-2, 2-1 MAC) each sit atop their respective divisions. Tomorrow at 11 a.m. the two face off in the Rubber City for a nationally televised cross-divisional matchup.
Setting The Scene:
Saturday's game isn't just a showdown between two of the best teams the MAC has to offer, it's also a battle between two of the best Mid-Major programs in the nation. The Rockets are currently ranked No. 4 in CollegeInsider's Mid-Major Top 25, while Akron has shot up the poll recently and is nestled in at No. 15. In Toledo's respect it also features one of the nation's best offenses (15th in scoring, 22nd in assists, and 24th in field goal percentage), while Akron enters as the reigning MAC Champs, and one of the most consistent programs in college basketball over the past decade.
When Akron and Toledo tip-off tomorrow it could very well be a preview of the 2013 MAC Championship game, and possibly a changing of the guard in terms of the MAC Basketball power.
It wasn't all that long ago that the Rockets were a bottom-dweller in the MAC, and the disgrace of the conference. Just last season Akron, which has owned Toledo since 2007—the year news broke about the Rockets program being involved in a point-shaving scheme—bullied Toledo in a 71-56 win at Savage Arena. Zeke Marshall dominated, amassing 16 points, nine blocks and eight rebounds, and Alex Abreu added another 11 points and nine dimes in the Akron win.
But now Abreu and Marshall are gone. Yes, the Zips are still a force thanks to Demetrius Treadwell and Quincy Diggs, but the reigning MAC Champs have been surpassed in the national spotlight by a powerful Rockets team that features five players averaging double-figures in the scoring department. What sparked the change? Well the additions of transfers Justin Drummond (14.4 ppg) and J.D. Weatherspoon (11.3 ppg and 6.0 rpg) have meshed flawlessly with returning starters Juice Brown, Rian Pearson and Nathan Boothe to form the most solid starting five in the conference.
Just how good is that starting five? Well on Dec. 30 the Rockets went into Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. and pushed the then No. 16 Jayhawks for 40 minutes in a 10-point loss. The five starters totaled 60 of Toledo's 83 points, an d caused fits for a sloppy Kansas squad which turned the ball over 18 times on the night.
Toledo dominates from the start. Leaping out to early leads often, and putting opponents away by an average of nearly 10 points a game. But, the Rockets aren't perfect, as demonstrated by the two losses on their record. The game following their loss to Kansas, their defense, or lack-there-of, was exposed in a loss at Western Michigan. The problem with being such an offensively focused team is that if a school can disrupt your rhythm the way the Broncos messed up Toledo's mojo that night it's hard to compete, let alone be competitive.
But any doubts that Toledo was a pretend team were erased Wednesday night when the Rockets battled with Buffalo down to the final-buzzer, literally. Toledo is here to play for keeps, and a win vs Akron, on the road in an arena the Rockets haven't won in since 2001, would go a long way towards asserting their claim as the new MAC basketball power.
Getting a win vs. Akron is easier said then done, though. After a slow start to the season the Zips have hit stride right at the start of conference play. Since Keith Dambrot took over Akron 10 seasons ago, the Roos have dominated MAC play. They've won three of the past five MAC Championships, and own MAC West opponents (45-12 under Dambrot). How do they do it? Well, being bigger than the competition helps. Akron has typically win by dominating the paint. Bigs such as Marshall were impossible to score on inside and allowed the Zips to control the tempo of the game by forcing opponents to settle for jump shots instead of challenging inside.
While Arkon's bigs aren't nearly as dominate this season without Marshall, the Zips still feature an impressive front court. Led by 6' 11'' sophomore Pat Forsythe and 6' 10'' freshman Isaiah Johnson Akron is averaging just over 35 boards and four blocks a game. The Zips rebounding margin over opponents is near tops in the MAC. But the real pulse to Akron's veins this season has been seniors Treadwell and Diggs. The two lead the team in almost every major statistical category including points (Treadwell 13.2), rebounds (Treadwell 7.8) and assists (2.7) per game. They provide matchup challenges that few teams in the MAC can conquer. Treadwell is a long 6' 7'' who plays with the force of a center and the grace and skill of a shooting guard. Digs is a textbook sixth man, and at 6' 6'' can matchup on point guards or forwards.
Toledo has emulated Dambrot's strategy to a sense, opting for skilled big men Pearson, Boothe and Weatherspoon) that allow the Rockets to challenge in the paint but are also scoring threats. Where the two differ is in the play of their guards.
For Toledo, Brown is a true floor general. His 7.2 assists per contest average is almost two more than the next closest MAC guard. The Rockets as a whole move the ball well, with a fluidity unrivaled in the MAC. Their assists-to-turnover margin is the highest in the MAC, as is the plain old fashioned turnover-margin. Toledo's guards can take care of the ball as well as anyone in the country and rarely cough it up.
But the lack of a true point guard is the one flaw in Akron's game this season. With Abreu no longer a part of the team due to legal issues, newcomer Nyles Evans has been adequate at best at point guard this season. The Zips struggle sharing the ball, averaging just 11.4 assists per game (276th in the country) and turn the ball over at breakneck pace 14.2 per game).
This is where the matchup will be one or lost tomorrow. In the backcourt. If Toledo can force its tempo on Akron and cause Evans, or whoever is running point as the Zips often do so by committee, to cough up the rock, it should have a firm control of this game. But, is Akron can minimize turnovers and hang in there with Toledo on offense, the Zips experience could prove the deciding factor, as it did this past Sunday in their 83-80 double-overtime win over Ohio.
One thing is certain though. When Toledo and Akron step on the court at James. A. Rhodes Arena tomorrow morning, two of the best teams in the MAC, and some of its brightest stars will surely put on one of the better performances we will see this season. And maybe, just maybe, a passing of the torch will occur.
The game tips off tomorrow at 11 a.m. and can be seen on ESPNU, ESPN3, WatchESPN or the MAC Digital Network via MAC-Sports.com.