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MAC Basketball Preview 2011-12: Akron Zips

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Thank goodness that football season is almost over! Now that basketball season is here, us Zip fans can stop paying attention to football (wait, when did we start?) and start to get excited about the upcoming basketball season.

There is a lot of excitement about this team, and understandably so. Coming off of another MAC Championship, expectations are high and this team looks to fulfill those lofty goals. Some are even talking about a possible Sweet 16 run, but just getting to the second (err…third) round of the NCAAs is the next step in the building of this program.

The Zips made the pilgrimage to Canada to play five games against university competition and won all of them, including a four point victory over the defending Canadian national champions (FWIW). Four key starters return in sophomore point guard Alex Abreu, senior shooting guard Brett McClanahan, senior power forward Nikola Cvetinovic, and junior center Zeke Marshall. These four will need to provide leadership to an otherwise young team.

Let’s get to the breakdown:

What’s New?

Answer: A lot. Gone are four key cogs in last year’s rotation: Steve McNees, Brett McKnight, Darryl Roberts, and Mike Bardo. It would seem like a great challenge to replace these guys, but coach Keith Dambrot keeps working wonders. Six, count ‘em, six new faces dot the roster for a team that seems to have more turnover in the past few years than your local McDonald’s. Guard Brian Walsh (Xavier) and Guard/Forward Chauncey Gilliam (Maryland Baltimore-County) have each sat out a year and are now ready to contribute. Forwards Nick Harney and Demetrius Treadwell also sat out last year to "focus on academics" and are able to play this year. Dambrot told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Harney and Treadwell reminded him of Jeremiah Wood and Romeo Travis, so that says a lot about their skill level and potential. Freshman sharpshooter Blake Justice and co-freshman Deji Ibitayo are candidates for redshirts, but may be too talented to keep off of the court. Depth will not be a problem with this team, and a more up-tempo offense will likely be something that Dambrot looks towards.

In their exhibition win against John Carroll, the plan to push the ball up the floor quickly was evident. But, this led to an uncharacteristic 25 turnovers, which will need to be cleaned up before their first game against Mississippi State. With the new additions, there are many "athletes" on this team. One problem may be finding time for everyone, and if there is a knock on Dambrot it’s his substitution patterns and lineup changes. The main challenge that he faces is getting everyone their minutes and in all reality keeping everyone happy.

Who’s gonna start?

The front court is pretty much set with Cvetinovic and Marshall at the 4 and 5. Abreu will start at the point and McClanahan likely at the 2, but the other guard spot is really up in the air. Gilliam has really impressed during preseason practices and open gyms and excelled in the team’s trip to Canada. He’s a bruiser at 230 pounds and a high-flyer. Gilliam also had a nice stat line of 20 points and 6 rebounds in the exhibition. Quincy Diggs is a solid but sometimes erratic player (he contributed 5 of the 25 TOs), and may be best served as a sixth man. If Dambrot wants to go big, sophomore forward Josh Egner could provide more of an inside presence and well as fellow 6’7"-ers Treadwell and Harney. Dambrot started Diggs in the exhibition game, but Gilliam’s performance may warrant a change. He’ll likely scramble the lineups at the start of the season to see who fits best, but Gilliam seems to have the lead right now, especially after the exhibition.

As stated before, the bench will be a great asset for this team. Walsh will likely back up Abreu and if Gilliam starts, Diggs should be the sixth man. Treadwell, Harney and Egner will be major contributors off of the bench (as major as they can be). That’s 10-deep right there, and we haven’t even gotten into the highly-touted freshmen yet. Justice is second in Ohio high school basketball history with 314 3-point makes over his high school career and Ibitayo has a 6’9" wingspan (somewhere Jay Bilas is drooling). These two impressed in Canada, but Ibitayo will be out for the first month or so with a torn meniscus, making him more likely as a redshirt candidate. Justice will likely redshirt as well after only seeing 3 minutes of playing time in the exhibition. Michael Green, C.J. Oldham and Kyle Petersen may see an increase in minutes as well, as they have been in the program for more than a year now and know how things work.

 What’s the schedule like?

Well, it’s a typical Akron schedule. This has always been a hot topic for MAC fans and message boarders and will continue to be. Why can’t (insert name of mid-major team) get (insert name of BCS school) to play (mid-major team) at home? There is just too much to lose and not enough positives for someone like Ohio State or Pitt to come play at Akron. Anyway, the Zips are participating in the 2K Sports Classic with a true road game to open the season at Mississippi State. Other games of interest include a visit to former Akron coach Bob Huggins and his West Virginia team and home games against Detroit and surprise Final Four and March Madness darling VCU. Finally, December brings a hectic four-games-in-seven-days stretch with a pu-pu platter of opponents such as Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T.

Any (non-homer) predictions?

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.