The Akron Zips might have struck out when they lost to Buffalo in the MAC Tournament finals, costing them a chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. But, they certainly hit a home run when it came to their NIT match-up - a visit to Schottenstein Arena in Columbus to take on the 3rd-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes.
The Buckeyes come into the first round contest against Akron as losers of three of their last five, including a nearly 30-point drubbing at the hands of eventual Big Ten Tournament Champion Michigan State. Ohio State finished the regular season at 19-12 (11-7 in conference) and ended up as the Big Ten's 7th seed. KenPom ranked them 70th in the nation and they had an RPI of 72.
They were on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament for the longest of time until they lost to the Spartans three times in 18 days. Wins over tournament teams like Kentucky, Iowa, and Michigan weren't enough to overcome bad losses to Memphis, UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech. A 14-5 record at home is pretty good, but included in those five losses are the UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech setbacks.
Normally Ohio State has one or two dominant players they lean on, but this year is a bit different. The scoring is a little more spread out amongst the team, as four players average over double-digit scoring totals. Junior Marc Loving leads the way, pacing the Buckeyes with 14 points per game as the starting small forward. Sophomore power forward Keita Baines-Diop follows Loving in scoring with 11 points per game and leads the team in rebounding. The Buckeyes have been without third leading scorer Jae'Sean Tate for awhile, as he is out for the season with a shoulder injury.
The player Akron is really going to have to watch out for is 6-foot-5 point guard JaQuan Lyle. The freshman from Indiana is averaging over 14 points per game in the last ten games, which includes stellar performances at Wisconsin (27 points) and against Penn State (22) in the Big Ten Tournament. Akron had a lot of trouble with Buffalo's 6-foot-3 point guard C.J. Massinburg in the tournament final, and gave up 21 points to him their last game at the JAR.
Lyle provides a huge match-up problem for Akron, who play small anyway. Noah Robotham (6-foot-1) and Antino Jackson (5-foot-11) will have their hands full against Lyle who will look to be a force on the glass too. No player in Ohio State's starting lineup is shorter than the point guard, so Akron will have to play wings Jake Kretzer and Reggie McAdams more minutes than usual to counteract the height issues Ohio State presents.
One area where Akron can take advantage of is on the inside. Isaiah Johnson has been a force in the paint lately, averaging nearly 16 points per game during the last stretch of eight games played. The 6-foot-8, nearly 300 pound center will be a tough defensive assignment for Buckeye big men Trevor Thompson and Daniel Giddens. Thompson stands 6-foot-11 but weighs 50 pounds lighter than Johnson, and Giddens is only 230. The Zips will have to establish Johnson early and often in order to keep this contest close.
Ohio State has a history of not playing in-state teams in basketball unless it's in a tournament, and Akron should relish this opportunity to take out the biggest bully in the state. This game may not have huge implications to a team like the Buckeyes, but for Akron it means the world. In the recruiting landscape, Akron has to go up against the likes of Xavier, Cincinnati, Dayton, Wright State, Cleveland State and all of the other MAC schools for talent. Not many of those teams can say they've beaten Ohio State before, and a win would improve Akron's spot in the pecking order that is Ohio college basketball.
It's a great opportunity for Akron to prove how good of a team they are in a state that bleeds scarlet and gray. There will be a lot of eyeballs on television in Ohio tuned into this game, and the Zips have the chance to make a strong statement in front of everyones' eyes.