After sweeping the Western Michigan Broncos (6-8, 0-1 MAC) in the 2014-2015 regular season, the Akron Zips (12-2, 1-0 MAC) met up with the Broncos in the second round of the MAC tournament to play for a trip to the quarterfinals. It became the second of Akron's three wins in the tournament, sending the defending champs home very early.
Just about every time Akron and Western Michigan meet up, it turns out to be a good game. Since 2008, they've met up in five MAC tournament games, with the only WMU victory sending them to the 2014 MAC finals. There's more to the matchup than its history, though. Akron coach Keith Dambrot and WMU coach Steve Hawkins have each been coaching at their respective schools for now over a decade. They've combined for five MAC tournament championships in their careers, and have been in the league for much longer than any other head coach.
The present day looks great for one team and uncertain for the other. The Zips have pulled out nine straight wins and were able to do the impossible (since 2009, at least) by winning a game at Buffalo. The Broncos, on the other hand, have struggles to a 6-8 record, but fought hard in an 87-84 overtime loss to Kent State at home to open up MAC play.
The loss of senior forward Connar Tava for the entire season has taken a huge toll on this Western Michigan team. They were certainly set up to be a very good team this year with the return of guards Thomas Wilder and Tucker Haymond to go along with center Drake LaMont, but Tava was the glue of it all, so the Broncos can still compete. The thing that lacks is the experience that Tava was able to provide.
Despite Akron having more depth than Western Michigan thanks to players like Josh Williams and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jake Kretzer, the Broncos match up with the Zips very well. Sophomore guard Thomas Wilder is one of the best young players in the league, and he could be a handful for Akron's drive defense that isn't getting much better game-by-game. Noah Robotham has lost some minutes because of his defense and when you play in a league with great guards like the MAC, that can become a big problem. If Wilder continues his streak of scoring at least 18 points per game over the last four, the Broncos will have a good chance of winning this game.
Western Michigan challenged Kent State to beat them by making the Flashes work inside. That led to losing a game holding the opponent to 3-16 from beyond the arc, but 30-56 on two point shots. Akron shoots 38% from the three-point line, so WMU may also want to force the Zips to play inside--only, Isaiah Johnson is playing the best basketball of his collegiate career right now and Pat Forsythe is slowly working his way back in from an ankle sprain from a few weeks ago.
Akron and Western Michigan have played in some classics over the past six years. The 2010 MAC semifinals, 2014 semifinals, and last year's game in Kalamazoo all come to mind. With the Broncos having a down year, this matchup won't get the hype that it normally would, but with parity among MAC teams becoming the norm, the Broncos very well could leave Rhodes Arena with a win giving them confidence as a 1-1 MAC record is much better than 0-2 following the first week of conference play.
Tip is at 7:00 EST on Friday January 8.
The game will air on ESPNU and can be streamed on ESPN3