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MAC Men's Basketball Preview: Akron Zips

After a surprisingly off year last year, is this the year Akron can get back to the Big Dance?

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations are an interesting concept. Some people hate talking about them (like coaches), some love talking about them (media, fans, talking heads). When a program has won 20-plus games in the past ten seasons, that milestone really isn't a goal anymore; it's an expectation. Akron did that last year, but because of such high expectations, the season felt like a letdown.

Last season was the first time that Akron finished at .500 or worse in conference play during the Keith Dambrot era. The Zips lost at Northern Illinois and were swept by Miami, finishing MAC play on a 1-6 struggle. This was, of course, without their two best players in Demetrius Treadwell (dismissed from the team) and rising freshman Noah Robotham (torn ACL). But when expectations are so high, the ups and downs of the season don't really matter as much.

The dawn of a new season brings those omnipresent expectations that come every year for the Akron Zips basketball program. The coaches picked the Zips to win the East and Akron had the second most votes for MAC Tournament Champion behind Central Michigan. The good thing is that it's nothing new for Akron, as every year is another opportunity to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Head Coach: Keith Dambrot, 12th year (252-121 overall, 118-56 MAC)

What is there left to say about Dambrot that hasn't been said already? Surprisingly he's not the dean of the MAC coaches, as Steve Hawkins from WMU has him by eight months. But still, to be at the same school for twelve years is a milestone in itself. Coming from the high school ranks (hey did you know he coached LeBron bet you didn't), Dambrot has built a power program in the MAC and in all-mid majors nationwide.

Akron is Dambrot's hometown and The University of Akron is his alma mater. There never really is any thought of him leaving - there was a minor worry a few years ago when Duquesne came calling twice - but it seems the thought is that Dambrot is going to retire a Zip. Being 57 years old, that may not happen for awhile, especially because his current contract expires in 2023. Sorry, rest of the MAC: Keith Dambrot isn't going anywhere soon.

2015-2016 Schedule

Date Opponent Time (EST) Notes
5-Nov Malone 7:00 Exhibition
14-Nov Cleveland State 9:00 Coaches vs. Cancer at Kent State
16-Nov Hiram 7:00
18-Nov at Arkansas 8:00 NIT Season Tip-Off
22-Nov at Villanova 4:30 NIT Season Tip-Off
24-Nov at Green Bay 8:00 NIT Season Tip-Off
27-Nov Charleston Southern 7:00 NIT Season Tip-Off
2-Dec Coppin State 8:00
4-Dec at Marshall 7:00
12-Dec Bethune-Cookman 7:00
21-Dec UC Santa Barbara 3:00 South Point Classic in Las Vegas, Nevada
23-Dec Iona 3:00 South Point Classic in Las Vegas, Nevada
30-Dec South Carolina State 7:00
2-Jan Lipscomb 7:00
5-Jan at Buffalo 7:00
8-Jan Western Michigan TBD
12-Jan at Central Michigan 7:00
16-Jan at Toledo 7:00
19-Jan Eastern Michigan 7:00
23-Jan Miami TBD
26-Jan Northern Illinois 7:00
30-Jan at Ball State 1:00
2-Feb at Ohio 7:00
6-Feb Central Michigan TBD
9-Feb at Bowling Green 7:00
13-Feb at Northern Illinois 4:30
16-Feb Buffalo 7:00
20-Feb at Kent State 7:00
23-Feb at Miami 7:00
27-Feb Bowling Green TBD
1-Mar Ohio 7:00
4-Mar Kent State TBD

Seniors lead the way

The last time Akron made it to the NCAA Tournament, this year's current crop of seniors were first-year players. Wings Jake Kretzer and Reggie McAdams were true freshmen, and Pat Forsythe was a redshirt freshman after transferring from West Virginia. It has been a long couple of years since that blowout loss to VCU, but these three are the only ones on the team with that type of experience,  which is invaluable.

Forsythe will feature centrally this season and should be one of the focal points of the offense. After a timid first two seasons as a Zip, Forsythe brought it on strong during his junior year. He averaged ten points, five rebounds and a block on his way to being named to the All-MAC third team. With another year under his belt and with sophomore point guard Noah Robotham returning (more on him later), Forsythe should be an all-MAC player again.

For McAdams and Kretzer, it's now or never. Both have had solid careers thus far in an Akron uniform, but they both have the potential to be all-MAC type players. With both of them being three-point specialists, it's tough to see their impact unless they get hot and start raining threes. As seniors, they will be leaders of this team and while they might not always light up the stat sheet, they need to play to their role and take the program back to where they've been before.

#Blessed at the point guard position

As far as point guard goes, Akron might have one of the best one-two punches in the nation. Robotham, a sophomore whose freshman season was cut short due to a torn ACL, was one of the best players in the MAC last year. He averaged ten points, three rebounds and three assists in 31 minutes of play. Former Zips point guard Alex Abreu had similar numbers, but in his junior season. The sky is the limit for Robotham, who is as heady of a point guard as there can be.

When Robotham went down with the injury, Antino Jackson stepped up in a huge way. Jackson averaged eleven points, three assists and two rebounds over the last ten games of the season and carried the injury-riddled Zips to the MAC Tournament semifinals as the seven seed before ultimately bowing out to eventual champion Buffalo. It'll be interesting to see how Dambrot uses both Robotham and Jackson this year, but the advantage is that whenever the starter needs a rest a more than capable backup lies in wait.

Freshman point guard Josh Williams could also factor in to this point guard rotation. The 6-foot-1 guard committed to Akron before his junior year right down Market Street at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. A three-star prospect, Williams may be too talented to redshirt.

Kwan Cheatham's time to shine

If you want to look at someone who did the most with the opportunity given to them, look no further than Kwan Cheatham. The 6-foot-9 sophomore wasn't expected to have a large role coming into last year, but that all changed when Treadwell was dismissed. Thrust into the starting lineup, the Cincinnati native was very solid all year posting averages of nearly eight points and five rebounds. Stepping into that starting four-spot role, especially replacing the team's best player, was a lot to ask for. Cheatham took on the challenge and thrived, which is outstanding from a sophomore who had averaged just nine minutes per game during his freshman season.

This season provides a different set of challenges, as Cheatham is no longer an unknown. He is 6-foot-9 but plays out on the perimeter most of the time, freeing up the paint for Forsythe to work his magic. Although his shooting percentages weren't fantastic (36 percent from the floor, 33 percent from beyond the arc), those should improve this year now that he has been fully ingrained in the offense. Like Kretzer and McAdams, he has the potential to be all-MAC. If all three of them take that proverbial next step, this could be a scary team.

Up for grabs

Let's be honest with ourselves: the MAC isn't going to be as good as it was last year. There were eight teams that won 20 games or more, which is almost unheard of in a mid-major conference. So much talent left that most teams have a pretty good amount of questions going into the year. The one team (other than Central Michigan) that wasn't really hurt by graduation? Akron.

Losing Deji Ibitayo (10 points, 3 rebounds) and Nyles Evans (5 points) will hurt, but Akron is so deep that those losses won't really effect the overall makeup of the team. Akron ranks just behind Miami in the East in percentage of points per game returning this season at 75 percent. They are miles ahead of East rivals Kent State (41 percent), Bowling Green and Buffalo (36 percent), and Ohio (32 percent) in that category. A team full of upperclassmen usually performs pretty well, and these core group of players have been playing together for multiple seasons now.

Akron hasn't been to the MAC Tournament finals in two years, which may not seem like a long time until you remember that the Zips had made it there seven straight years in a row. This season is their best chance to get back to that spot and possibly back in the field of 68. Relying on a good group of seniors and up-and-comers, Keith Dambrots' Zips will once again be right at the top of the conference and fighting for a NCAA Tournament bid.