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The Zips are 14-point favorites tonight. During this three-game homestand, the Zips have been favored by a combined 50 points. Wow!
Northern Illinois has consistently given Akron trouble. Two years ago, NIU came into Rhodes Arena and won by 10. The Huskies outshot Akron, 65 percent to 35 percent. Last season, the Huskies won by four in DeKalb, Ill., when NIU outshot Akron by nearly 20 percent. The bizarre thing is, Darion Anderson dropped 24 points and 10 rebounds in each game. So you're seeing a pattern: poor Akron shooting and a red-hot Anderson getting whatever he wants.
This year, NIU has a new weapon -- 6-foot-5 guard Xavier Silas, a transfer from Colorado who averages 20.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He was 1-for-9 against Kent on Monday, though. The whole Huskies team struggled in that game, committing 23 turnovers.
The Huskies give up 74.9 points per game, second worst in the league. They don't play much defense, but they're a decent rebounding team.
NIU has a freshman guard who is 5-5. He doesn't play much, but it's neat to watch a guy that short on a college team. I don't want to stereotype, but he must be a crazy ballhandler or pesky defender.
Akron's starters: Steve McNees, Humpty Hitchens, Zeke Marshall, Chris McKnight and Jimmy Conyers. A couple of surprises there: Hitchens returns to the team as a starter. Marshall re-enters the starting lineup. Who could've predicted that the only constant among Keith Dambrot's starters would be Conyers?
One reason for Marshall's starting is NIU has a 6-11 center, Sean Kowal, who is not starting. They ran a play for Marshall on the first possession, and the 7-footer dropped in a sky hook.
I will be happy to see Akron play on the road four of the next five games. I have to start getting some work done in the evenings. The brief for my moot court competition is due in a few weeks.
Conyers took a shot in the face and went to the floor in the middle of a possession. Dambrot pulled him to the bench, where the trainer is looking him over.
Marshall also survived the first string of substitutions. The refs helped him celebrate this feat by overlooking how Marshall switched pivot feet in the post. The next play, a Huskie stripped Marshall in the post. It was too many dribbles for a 7-footer.
After tonight, Akron only has three home games remaining (barring an NIT home game, which appears unlikely).
The fans behind me are irate over an out-of-bounds call that appeared to be incorrect.
NIU center Michael Fakuade biffed a dunk attempt. Brett McKnight got just enough pressure to distract him.
A couple of Zips fans are enjoying an early Valentine's Day dinner in one of the corners of the arena. It's a touch of the Terrace Club at Progressive Field. What better way can a man spend a romantic dinner than looking at something he loves: the Zips?
Silas made his first bucket at the 10:11 mark. He had been 0-for-6 from the field. His father, David Silas, played in the NBA with the Spurs and Cavaliers.
Michael Patton, son of NIU head coach Ricardo Patton, entered the game. As a freshman two years ago, he scored 22 at Akron. He was skinnier than a string bean then (as my mom would say), but he had a sweet jumper. This year, Patton is averaging only 2.7 points per game.
Akron fans yelled "three, three, three" to indicate Kowal was anchored in the paint. The refs blew the whistle, probably thanks to their help.
Marshall, who has six rebounds, nailed two free throws. Tom Gaffney pointed out that he changed his pre-shot routine. No dribbles. Just a spin and a shot.
Conyers swished a mid-range jumper to extend the Zips' lead to 10. Chris McKnight cashed a couple free throws to make it 12.
Chris McKnight, dashing toward the baseline and sensing a double-team, executed a nice wrap-around pass to his brother, who was fouled and got his shot to hang on the rim and fall in. Very nice play. It's about time we see these guys playing like they're brothers, rather than strangers who happen to share a surname.
On the last play of the half, a McNees 3-point attempt rattled half-way down and came out. The rebound bounced to Darryl Roberts, who floated the ball above oncoming giants to swish a 12-footer.
Halftime stats of note: Roberts leads both teams with 10 points. Marshall has a game-high six rebounds. The teams have combined to make only 4-of-20 3-pointers. Akron is shooting 45.5 percent, compared to NIU's 31.3 percent. Akron has 11 assists and four turnovers.
Twenty-one members of the men's soccer team achieved a GPA of 3.0 or better. Considering their national title run, that's amazing. Every sport's academic stars were honored at halftime.
Marshall gathered a rebound, hit Hitchens on a quick outlet pass, and Hitchens fired a a pee to a cutting Conyers for the dunk. Excellent execution on the fast break.
NIU has a forward named Lee Fisher, probably no relation to an Ohio Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate with the same name. I'm fairly certain that Republican Rob Portman is going to cream whomever the Democrats throw out there in November. It's not going to be a good year to be 1) an incumbent (because of the general hatred of government), 2) a liberal (because of the healthcare issue), or 3) old (because of the Obama effect). Fisher is scoreless tonight.
Conyers engaged in a footrace with NIU's Tony Nixon on a fastbreak. Nixon grabbed Conyers' arm and tugged him down. It was a hard foul but a fair one. Nixon drilled a 3 on the next play.
Roberts chucked up a 3 that he sensed was going to brick off the right side of the iron. He immediately darted to the paint, where he gathered the loose ball and converted a layup. Have I mentioned lately how I think Roberts is the smartest player on the team? Two possessions later, Roberts led the fast break and found Hitchens alone in the corner for a 3, which extended Akron's lead to 19.
The next home game is against Ohio on Valentine's Day. I'll be here if my lady friend permits it. If there's one thing I've learned about Valentine's Day, it's don't screw it up. Girls never forget a botched Valentine's Day. You'll hear about it for months. Months.
I'm starting to see how Dambrot has such a difficult time keeping a rotation and giving his guys enough time to establish themselves. I can make a great case for each guard to get a lion's share of the minutes. Starting with the guards... McNees is your best pure point guard. He's poised with the ball, and the stats reflect it. His shooting is streaky and defense is iffy, but you can't substitute for having someone who could end up being a solid true point guard. ... Hitchens has star potential. If Akron is going to be a top-25 team, it's because they have a go-to playmaker who can drive and dish. He's also your surest shot on 3s. ... Roberts is a steadying force on the court. He makes good decisions and generally does everything well. ... Then you have Brett McClanahan and Ronnie Steward, two young players who deserve at least 10 minutes each to develop.
Cvetinovic is on a tirade after being called for a foul. Immediately following the whistle, he smacked his hands together and yelled "I didn't [bleeping] touch him!" Dambrot pulled him from the game and Cvetinovic got into it with Dan Peters on the bench. Then he used Peters' and Mike Bardo's thighs as a crutch to pick himself out of the chair and walked over toward the locker room. Cvetinovic returned to the bench, and Bardo switched seats with Tim Carroll who is doing his best to console the seething Serbian.
Now let's look at the frontcourt, which is equally muddled. Conyers, as your best player, must get at least 25 minutes per game. There's no denying his rebounding and defense, nor his offensive improvement. ... Chris McKnight is a senior who carried Akron to many wins during his career. He has been inconsistent, but you never know when it will start to click again, and when it does, the Zips will have a steady source of scoring. ... Brett McKnight is your current go-to player. He might be the only player on the roster with current ability to score more than 25. ... Cvetinovic, as I wrote the other night, is capable of being Akron's next solid post threat if he can master a few more post moves and control his emotions. He must be playing 20 minutes per game to improve there. ... Then you have the big boy, Marshall. Dambrot knows he is retarding Marshall's growth in any game where the 7-footer isn't out there for at least 25 minutes. So where does all of this playing time come from? There are five players who each should play 25 minutes (plus whatever Bardo gets), and that is impossible, particularly when McClanahan is taking a handful of minutes at small forward.
Cvetinovic returned to the game. That was a wild blowup. I thought Dambrot would send him to the showers.
NIU has stolen the ball on consecutive possessions. McNees came right back onto the floor. The Huskies are decent at defending with their hands, but they don't care to move their feet all too often.
Mike DiNunno made an inconsequential layup with 19 seconds left -- unconsequential to everyone except the bettors who saw a push on the 14-point spread.
Final score -- Akron 90, Northern Illinois 76
Final stats of note: Roberts had 18 points and eight rebounds. Marshall led both teams with nine rebounds. Chris McKnight scored 16; Conyers had 15. McNees tallied five assists and only one turnover. For NIU, Silas scored 15, seven of which came at the free-throw line. He was 4-for-15 from the field. Akron shot 44.1 percent, compared to NIU's 32.3 percent. Akron made 5-of-8 3s in the second half.
"Tonight was the biggest game of the year for us. We didn't want to lose two games consecutively at home. We came out and made a point that we weren't going to lose tonight. It's no secret that I haven't been playing well."
"Our energy level was way up. We wanted to come out and do that tonight."
"Some teams have their ups and downs. If we set our minds on what we want to do, we'll stay on track."
"I feel that last year we were the underdog. This year, we relaxed on it."
"Silas is a leading scorer in our league, so (stopping him) was a point of emphasis."
Shooting is "starting to feel better. I felt a little rhythm tonight."
"Coach does everything he can. But it's our job to go out there and play."
On Marshall: "I think he rebounded well tonight. He got both hands on the ball and didn't let anyone strip it from him."
"I believe our biggest road win was at Western Michigan. We've had some pretty bad games on the road at Buffalo and at Kent. These next four out of five will test us."
"I'm just glad we won. I went back after the Eastern Michigan game and watched the tape. We played hard. What am I supposed to do? Browbeat our guys because the ball doesn't go in the basket. As long as we play hard and play together, the results will follow. The ball went in the basket tonight, and it didn't go in the basket the other night."
"I was mad after the game, but I told them we're a good team. We may not win the MAC Tournament, but we'll win a lot of games. Is it the best team we've ever had? Probably not. Does it have room for improvement? Yes."
"If the North Carolina Tarheels can have issues with Roy Williams? Then the Akron Zips can have issues. Michigan State goes to Wisconsin and gets pounded. It happens. That's the difference between me now and me as a 25-year-old head coach. Sometimes when things go bad, you have to massage. And sometimes when things are going well, you have to kick them in the behind."
"I'm proud of my guys. They rallied themselves. These are hardworking guys."
"We shared it well. (McNees) is getting better under pressure where he doesn't cough the ball up. He does not make many mistakes anymore. He's not going to make as many plays as some point guards, but we don't need him to do more."
"I'm happy for (Darryl). He came into the game shooting 29 percent in the conference. Brett McKnight came into the game shooting 33.8 in the conference. If they shoot that percentage, I don't care if Johnny Wooden is coaching, you're not winning."
"I was happy for them (the McKnight brothers). When a family gives you two of them sons, you don't know what kind of pressure it is to make them successful. Sometimes I'm brutal on them because of it. When they play like that, they're good."
"We knew we had to get back in transition. We knew we could run on them, but we had to pick and choose because we didn't want to get in a track meet."
"I thought Zeke was really good. I told Zeke we've never been able to guard these guys, so you need to change some things for us to be able to guard them."
"They're not great teams, they're good teams. Ball State is fairly conservative. They pack it in defensively. They have a good center. It will be a close game. They're going to hold the ball and wait until the end of the clock, like Toledo, like Eastern Michigan, like Miami."
"Central has got a bunch of old guys. They're a good team. It's a lot of travel. The bad thing about the schedule is that we play at 12 on Saturday. Ever since Western Michigan, I've been knocked. It's a long trip. It's hard to sleep on the bus. We are taking tomorrow off. We are going right from Ball State to Central. It's a Saturday-Tuesday game."
Cvetinovic "was mad because he kept fouling. He's the lowest maintenance guy off the court."
"I think people have to understand that to go over a six-year period like we have is supposed to be hard. Like Cleveland State is reloading right now. It's hard to stay consistently good at this level when you take all high school guys. We take no risk. Until those guys are juniors and seniors, you're going to have some years when you're not great."
"They picked us first, but I think that was an inaccurate pick."
"I think the one thing that is good is that it teaches guys you can't take anything for granted."