The calendar has turned to another MAC basketball season, and yet again the Akron Zips are right there in the hunt for yet another conference title. Keith Dambrot has had an impressive career as Akron's head coach and he'll continue to as he's signed through the 2022-2023 season. He'll have his work cut out for him this year, as he loses two all-conference performers. Powerful programs don't rebuild, they reload, and the Zips have reloaded enough to be tops in the MAC again.
The 2012-2013 season was one to remember for Zips fans, in more than one way. It started with the compliance fiasco that left Nick Harney and Demetrius Treadwell suspended for the first three games of the season, two of which were overtime losses. The Zips did well to beat a Big Ten team (Penn State) in Puerto Rico and also notched a nice non-conference victory over Middle Tennessee State. The conference schedule extended their school record nineteen game winning streak, including two wins over Ohio and a nice BracketBuster win over North Dakota State. The streak ended at Buffalo, but Akron rebounded to win the Conference Tournament and earn a twelve seed in the NCAA Tournament. The tournament game didn't go so well against VCU (believe me, I was there), which was a combination of sick/injured/suspended players and the great press defense that the Rams played.
Akron ended the season 26-7, matching the school record for wins in a season. It also extended the Zips' streak of winning twenty-plus games to eight years, which is something only a few high-profile schools have done.
Unfortunately, a lot. Two of the most recognizable names in Zips basketball history are gone: Zeke Marshall and Alex Abreu both depart under very different circumstances. Marshall graduated and, uh, yeah that happened as well. Akron also loses Brian Walsh (7.2 ppg) and Chauncey Gilliam (5.6 ppg).
The loss of Marshall is the biggest, both literally and figuratively. Marshall's career as a Zip had some ups and downs, but it can be said without much argument that he was one of the most successful Zips of all-time. His shot-blocking and shot-altering ability gave Akron something that not a lot of other teams in the nation, much less the conference, had. Just the presence of Marshall in the paint was enough to make opponents think twice about taking it down the lane.
Abreu's exit has been much ballyhooed, but in all honesty it is a huge loss. Point guard isn't the easiest position to play in the game, and Abreu played it often with ease. His ability to hit the clutch three pointer or find the right guy on the fast break was uncanny and it'll surely be missed. Whoever steps into the starting point guard role (we'll get into that soon) will have huge shoes to fill.
Walsh and Gilliam weren't all-conference type players but were solid. Walsh had one of the highest basketball IQs that I've ever seen and Gilliam could sometimes go off for twenty. Walsh actually has returned to the team as a graduate assistant this season.
Even though Akron lost a lot, they return 55% of minutes, 53% of points scored and 60% of total rebounds. Demetrius Treadwell and Nick Harney are the leading returners, scoring 11.5 and 9.5 points per game respectively. Treadwell is an absolute monster on the glass grabbing eight boards per game. He may be the strongest player in the league and has the potential to be in the NBA one day. Harney looks like he has vastly improved over last year in both his scoring ability and ball-handling. After being asked to run the point after Abreu's suspension, his turnovers picked up a bit but got better during the postseason.
Quincy Diggs also returns after a season-long suspension. I touched a lot on Diggs' return here. From what Diggs showed in last night's exhibition win, he could be the best player in the conference. He scored with ease (against a D-3 team) and looked like he'd improved greatly over two years ago. Jake Kretzer and Reggie McAdams return after stellar freshman seasons. Kretzer had been battling back problems all offseason but seems to be 100% now. McAdams should be the sixth or seventh man off of the bench and was lethal from beyond the three point arc last year. Carmelo Betancourt will assume the starting point guard role after Abreu's exit, and he should be improved over last season. He was under some unusual circumstances last season, but for the Zips to be a better team this year he needs to take the next step. Pat Forsythe also returns and will likely be the starting center. One of the freshmen will push him, but his experience and touch around the low post should make him a solid player this season. Deji Ibitayo also returns and looks to get some more playing time this season.
Here's a name you'll want to know: Isaiah "Big Dog" Johnson. Johnson comes to Akron with a lot of hype and with the graduation of Marshall he'll get plenty of playing time. Nyles Evans, Dambrot's first JUCO transfer since 2004, will be the backup point guard and should provide meaningful minutes when Betancourt is on the bench. B.J. Gladden, a 6'5 forward who had a Tennessee offer, should also receive some playing time but could also be a candidate for a redshirt. Aaron Jackson and Kwan Cheatham are also redshirt candidates.
What used to be a point of contention for Zips basketball fans is now something Akron can boast about. Last year's schedule was really good and this season's schedule brings the same kind of firepower. The Zips will certainly earn their frequent flier miles this year, as they travel out to Moraga, California for a November 12th matchup against St. Mary's. That game is part of the ESPN 24-Hour Tip-Off and will be played at 3 am Eastern time. Just four days later the Zips travel to Middle Tennessee, who was the last team into the NCAA Tournament last year. Another highlight of the schedule is the Diamond Head Classic tournament in Honolulu where they'll face Oregon State in the first round. That tournament is perfect for the Zips; it features a bunch of teams who all pretty much have the same skill level. I wouldn't be surprised to see Akron get into the championship game in that one. Akron finishes off the non-conference part of the schedule with one of the worst power conference teams in the country in South Carolina.
All in all it's an almost perfect schedule for Akron. No buy games, plenty of good mid-majors (Middle Tennessee, St. Mary's, Cleveland State, Marshall) and great opportunities for power conference victories (Oregon State, South Carolina). I would like to see them play one Big Ten game every year, but oh well.
It's another year of high expectations for the Zips, and this team may be even more talented than last year. Marshall was a great player, but his lack of speed made Akron more of a half court team. Now that Treadwell and Harney will get more playing time Dambrot will probably play more up tempo than normal, both on offense and defense. The depth that Akron has certainly would allow them to play that way. Betancourt may be the key to the season, as he doesn't need to do a whole lot but he can't be the one to lose games. The aforementioned depth is probably the best in the conference, even though Toledo probably has a better starting five.
The schedule is tough, with the trips out west and difficult road tests. It should make the conference season much easier, which is the ultimate goal of the non-conference. All in all, expect another banner season for the Zips. I don't know if 26 games in plausible again, but they'll win twenty and be in the MAC Championship Game. Toledo and Akron will battle it out for the conference title, and the only time they'll meet is in Akron on January 18. You're gonna want to circle that date on your calendar.
Once again the hardest part of Keith Dambrot's job will be managing minutes. This team has so much talent that it's going to be hard to get everyone the minutes they probably should get. Dambrot has this problem every year, if you even want to call it a problem. He knows how to develop players and what lineups work, and he'll have to figure that out again with this team. This may be his most athletic team ever, and it certainly has the firepower to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.