As staggering a blow as it was for the University of Akron to lose junior point guard Alex Abreu, in the three games since his indefinite suspension there has been an unexpected development.
The Zips’ defense has improved.
That was not the observation of UA coach Keith Dambrot, but of 7-foot senior center Zeke Marshall.
“One thing Alex brought to the table was good offense. What he also brought to the table was lackadaisical defense, too,” Marshall said after practice Monday. “Not saying we wouldn’t love [to have] Alex because we would, but he was a slight liability defensively.
“Now we have guys on the floor who aren’t really a liability defensively. Now Carmelo [Betancourt] is pushing it up, we can all create turnovers, create havoc like VCU.”
There was no resentment towards Abreu in Marshall’s voice. Marshall knows the Zips would have a better chance to defeat VCU in Thursday night’s first-round NCAA Tournament South Region game in Auburn Hills, Mich., with Abreu in the lineup. His replacement, Betancourt, is a freshman; his backup, Nick Harney, has never played the position.
But Marshall pointed out that since Abreu’s arrest March 7 on felony drug charges, Dambrot has found success using forwards Demetrius Treadwell and Harney on opponents’ guards.
“We can switch on guards and watch guards. You’re not going to be shooting 3s in front of guys who are 6-8,” Marshall said. “You’re going to have to drive and you’re going to drive ’em into me. So we’re having a nice fluidity in our defense, which is why it’s working.”
UA put on a defensive show in its two games in the Mid-American Conference Tournament last weekend. The best players the Zips faced— Kent State’s Chris Evans and Ohio’s D.J. Cooper — shot a combined 1-for-19 from the field.
Evans turned in his second-worst scoring night in KSU’s 33 games this season, finishing with six points, going 1-of-11 from the field and 4-of-5 from the free-throw line. In the regular-season finale at UA a day after Abreu’s arrest, Evans managed 11 points, hitting 4-of-10 from the field and 2-of-4 from the line. In the first meeting at Kent State in which Abreu played, Evans scored 19 points, hitting 5-of-11 from the field and 8-of-11 from the line.
Cooper’s performance Saturday in the championship was even more stunning. Dambrot used Treadwell, Harney, Jake Kretzer and Marshall on MAC player of the year Cooper, the same approach Dambrot said he had taken the previous three times the Zips had faced the Bobcats.
The star point guard who led OU to the Sweet 16 in 2012 scored only three points, going 0-for-8 from the field, with six 3-point attempts. UA had similar success at home on Feb. 2, when Cooper shot 3-of-10 from the field, 1-of-5 beyond the arc and totaled 14. He fared better in Athens on Feb. 27, hitting 8-of-19, including 5-of-10 on 3-pointers, and finished with 26.
On Saturday Dambrot called Cooper “one of the greatest players college basketball has seen,” and pointed out he had cost the Zips trips to the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and ’12.
“I thought we had the best plan against Cooper of anybody, but we were the only one who could do it,” Dambrot said Monday. “The reason I say that is we played him with a big guy knowing they were going to ball screen with [Reggie] Keely. We could guard Keely with Harney and Treadwell and Kretzer; Zeke was agile enough laterally to guard Cooper. No other center in maybe America could have done that.”
As for Evans, Dambrot lauded the effort of Treadwell in a battle of “our best athlete against their best athlete.” Dambrot said Treadwell took away Evans’ right-hand drive, funneled him into Marshall when Evans went to his left and got a hand in his face on 3-point shots.
“He’s multidimensional, he can guard any position on the floor, he’s as strong as an ox, his will to win is second to none,” Dambrot said of Treadwell on Saturday. “Then you have Zeke, who affects the game.
“I’m never going to coach another LeBron, I’ll never have another guy quite like Zeke, but we’ll always build our team on defense.”
Dambrot insisted that foundation has been good all year. Part of it hinges on rebounding margin, with the Zips tied for 24th in NCAA Division I (with a 6.0 edge). Marshall stands fourth in the country in blocked shots.
“If you don’t give up transition baskets and you have Zeke Marshall at the rim and you’re one of the best rebounding teams in the country, then they’re not getting many easy shots,” Dambrot said. “It also allows us to play a little bit tighter on people because you have Zeke at the rim.”
Dambrot made the formula sound simple. Whether it will work against full-court-pressing VCU is another matter. But Harney said the defense-first emphasis has become a fact of life.
“That’s how we’ve got to win games now,” Harney said. “Alex sort of made up for a lot of defensive mistakes with his offense. Defense is going to win us these games.”
As the emotionally ruptured Zips put themselves back together after Abreu’s arrest, they seem to have discovered the part of the game Dambrot cares about most.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.