With just six conference games to play, Akron and Toledo, two of the MAC's preseason favorites, sit in position to challenge for the conference tournament's top seed. Wednesday, those teams will meet to help sort out a muddy picture atop the conference standings.
The Zips (17-8, 8-4 MAC) host the Rockets (16-9, 8-4 MAC) at 7 p.m. Wednesday as both teams look to gain a leg up in a conference race that features five schools within a single game of first place. Each squad enters the matchup off a loss, but having won five of their last seven contests.
For the hosts, it will be a chance to avenge perhaps the season's most disappointing defeat, an 84-67 loss at Toledo on Jan. 9. With Akron's three other conference losses - to middling Northern Illinois, Ohio and Eastern Michigan squads - each coming by a margin of three points or less, the Rockets' 17-point win certainly sticks out.
So what happened that day? And can Toledo repeat it, or will Akron be able to level the playing field at home and get back on the winning track?
A quick glance at the box score points to a wildly emphatic Toledo offensive performance more than any particular Zips shortcoming. The Rockets shot 56.3 percent from the field, including an outrageous 9-for-11 from three-point range. While the Rockets are a dangerous shooting team, their season field goal percentage is a much more reasonable 47 percent, with 38 percent shooting from downtown.
While Toledo cannot simply flip a switch to replicate that shooting performance Wednesday in Akron, the Rockets can attempt to mimic another stat from that game that helped them to victory. Toledo attempted 32 free throws to just 15 for the Zips in that contest, and while the hosts made a lower percentage of their foul shots than Akron, the sheer difference in attempts gave Toledo an eight-point advantage in that category. If Julius Brown, J.D. Weatherspoon and others can force fouls by driving on the basket, Toledo can look to maintain that advantage once again.
For Akron, a team with balanced scoring that does many things well, the plan may simply be to play its game and hope Toledo does not catch lightning in a bottle for a second time this season. The Zips have demonstrated the talent and depth to be considered among the MAC's best with a resume that includes a pair of wins over current MAC leader Bowling Green.
With Pat Forsythe, Deji Ibitayo and Noah Robotham each averaging around 10 points a game, the balanced scoring for the Zips gives them a higher floor than some of the MAC's more volatile teams - such as Toledo. So while it is clear that Toledo can beat Akron (and on a great day, beat Akron comfortably), the Zips will at least not beat themselves. The Rockets will have to play very well to earn a series sweep Wednesday at James A. Rhodes Arena. If they don't, Akron will earn a split, redemption and, most importantly, valuable positioning as the conference regular season comes to a close.