Don’t look now, but it’s quarterfinal time at the Q in Cleveland where the Eastern Michigan Eagles and the Akron Zips will put on a nightcap closer to Day 1 in The Land. The Zips earned an 11 seed for the tourney and opened with a 79-78 win over No. 6 Western Michigan. With that win, they advanced to face the Eagles, who earned an automatic bye to the House Lebron Built.
The Zips enter the MAC quarterfinal with a 14-17 overall record and 6-12 in the MAC. Eastern Michigan enters the contest with a 20-11 overall record and 11-7 in MAC play. The Eagles closed the regular season with a six-game winning streak and have been winners in their last 9-of-11 games. In addition, EMU is 10-4 since the last time they played Akron. This season, EMU is 13-3 (6-3 MAC) at home and 7-8 (5-4 MAC) on the road.
Thursday’s game marks the 50th meeting in series history between Akron and Eastern Michigan, and sixth meeting for a Groce coached squad, second at Akron. Akron holds a 28-21 all-time series advantage while Groce is 2-3 overall against the Eagles, 0-1 at Akron. In addition, this is the third straight year Akron and Eastern Michigan have met in the MAC quarterfinals.
The Zips have won 18 of the last 22 meetings, including 5-of-6 games. Earlier this season, Eastern Michigan snapped Akron’s five game winning streak in the series with a 63-49 win at the Convocation Center. The Zips won both regular-season meetings last year 70-63 on Jan. 20, at Rhodes Arena and 87-76 on Feb. 10, at the EMU Convocation Center. The Zips and the Eagles played a third time during the 2016-17 season. Akron met Eastern Michigan in the quarterfinal of the MAC Tournament for the second-straight season. The No. 1 ranked Zips defeated the No. 8 ranked Eagles, 79-62, at Quicken Loans Arena on March 9, 2017.
The Zips are led in scoring by Daniel Utomi, at 16.8 points per game. Utomi poured in 26 points in their opening round win over WMU, and it stands to reason that another outstanding night is needed for the Zips to snap the Eagles 6-game winning streak.
EMU has three players scoring in double figures led by third-team All-MAC honoree Elijah Minnie with 16.8 points on 45.7 percent shooting from the floor (184-of-403) and 33.0 percent from downtown with a team-high 65 made 3-point FG (65-of-197). Minnie leads the squad at the free throw line, shooting 84.5 percent (87-of-103), and in blocked shots (54) while ranking second in rebounds (5.9 rebs/g, 184 total) and steals (57). He adds 38 assists to the stat sheet.
First-Team All-MAC selection James Thompson IV follows with 15.3 points per game. Thompson leads the Eagles in FG made (185), FG percentage (.683, 185-of-271) and rebounds (357). Of his 11.5 rebounds per game, Thompson secured 230 defensive boards and 127 offensive rebounds. He is first in blocked shots (55) and adds 24 steals.
Paul Jackson rounds out the double-digit scoring, averaging 14.9, while teammate Tim Bond scores 9.3 points per night on average. Jackson leads the squad in assists (140) while shooting 41.6 percent from the floor (171-of-411) with 27 made triples. Bond shoots 47.5 percent from the floor (112-of-236) and 37.7 percent from long range (29-of-77) with a team-best 77 steals. In addition, Jordan Nobles is a threat from deep, draining a second-best 31 triples on 84 attempts (.369).
Defensively, EMU limits opponents 67.2 points a night on 40.7 percent shooting from the field and 35.1 percent from downtown with 8.0 made 3-pt FG per game. The Eagles caused 456 turnovers (14.7 tpg) while collecting 272 steals (8.8 stl/g) and 191 blocked shots (6.2 blk/g). On the glass, Eastern Michigan is slightly outrebounded by its opponents 1073-1083 for a slim -0.3 margin.
The winner of the No. 11 Akron versus No. 3 Eastern Michigan matchup will advance to the semifinal round of the MAC Tournament in Cleveland, Ohio. The winners are slated to play Friday, March 9 at 9 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena.