With star point guard Noah Robotham still recovering from an ACL tear and two other rotation players injured, things looked bleak before the game for a depleted Zips squad about to go toe-to-toe with an up-tempo high-pressure team from the SEC that was a 5-seed in last year's NCAA Tournament.
Forget that. Akron came out firing, burying three-pointer after three-pointer to close out Arkansas in Fayetteville, beating the Razorbacks 88-80 in the first game of the NIT Season Tip-Off. This was Akron's third win over a Power 5 team in two years after beating both South Carolina and USC last season.
Let's look at three things we learned from Akron's huge victory at Arkansas:
Live by the three, live by the three
Akron led in the first half mainly due to being deadly-accurate from beyond the arc. The Zips were 6-13 (46 percent) from 3-point land, including two each from Antino Jackson, Kwan Cheatham and Reggie McAdams. Open looks came from good ball movement and effectively breaking the press. Jackson also found open shooters driving to the paint including McAdams, who ended up with 11 first half points.
That hot shooting continued in the second half, with the Zips going 7-15 from deep. Every time that Arkansas seemed to be making a run to get back into the game, Akron answered with a huge three. Great ball movement allowed open threes, and guys like McAdams and Jake Kretzer knock those down so easily. Cheatham finished 3-5, Kretzer 3-6, McAdams 4-8 and Jackson 3-7. Usually after a hot shooting start things can go cold quickly, but Akron never allowed that to happen and it propelled them to a victory.
Pressure defense gives Akron fits
Mike Anderson's pressure defense caused Akron a lot of trouble at the end of the first half. After Cleveland State pressured Akron for most of the game last Friday, the Zips should have been well versed and prepared for yet another up-tempo game.
For the first fifteen minutes or so Akron was doing fine with the full-court press, but with five minutes left everything feel apart. With 5:03 remaining in the first half, Akron was leading 35-22 and had all of the momentum. Then, they let the pressure get to them. The Zips committed six turnovers during the last five minutes of the half and were outscored 7-2 over that time frame. They really could have put the game more out of reach if they just handled the ball a little better, but they gave momentum back to Arkansas at on of the most important points of the game.
To Akron's credit, the second half was much better. The Zips committed only four turnovers in the second half, but many future opponents will use that first half game tape as a blueprint on how to force Akron into bad turnovers and easy breakaway baskets.
Antino Jackson is blossoming into a great player, but causes a dilemma
Jackson was the best player on the floor Wednesday night. He finished with 23 points on 8-18 shooting, including 3-7 from beyond the arc. He also had seven assists, many of those setting up three-point shooters. Yes, he was a little out of control at times, but against high-pressure defense he performed admirably.
The Houston-born point guard saved his best for winning time, as he drove the lane on a one-on-one break, got fouled and made an acrobatic layup to put the Zips up 82-76 with 1:19 left and effectively closed out the game. That play provided an exclamation point to Jackson's career night and served as a microcosm as to Jackson's play the entire game. He also played a full 40 minutes, which when you consider the type of player he is and the energy he plays with, it's an amazing feat.
But, there is a bit of a conundrum from Keith Dambrot. Noah Robotham is bound to come back at some point, but with Jackson playing so well can he just insert Robotham into the starting line-up and move Jackson to the bench? I would think Dambrot would ease Robotham back into the starting line-up and let Jackson continue his scoring streak. If there's anyone to trust in this situation it's Dambrot; with 12 years on the Akron sidelines he's got the experience to know what will work.
Akron will have a few days to calm down from the emotional win, as they fly to Philadelphia to take on Villanova on Sunday. The game will tip at 4:30 Eastern and will be aired on Fox Sports 1.