The celebration continued for the University of Akron on Sunday afternoon with a watch party at Rhodes Arena where they learned that they would face = Virginia Commonwealth in the South Region in Auburn Hills, Mich., in the NCAA Tournament at 9:45 p.m. Thursday.
The selection committee could be accused of having a perverse sense of humor given the matchup. Zips coach Keith Dambrot and VCU’s Shaka Smart are best friends from when Smart served as an assistant at UA from 2003 until 2006.
“When I saw them as a five [seed), I knew they were a 12, so it’s hard because we’re such good friends. It’s one of those things [when] either one wins, the other will feel sorry for the other guy,” Dambrot said after learning of the pairing. “It’s a business; we got put up against one another in the BracketBusters too, so I guess we’re just joined at the hip.”
When he saw VCU’s name pop up on the screen during the selection show, Dambrot said that he had a suspicion they were next, figuring that the Zips, who received their highest seed ever in the tournament, would be no worse than 12. They are 0-2 against the Rams with the last game coming in December 2011, a game the Zips lost by a point.
Smart remains close to Dambrot through 7:30 a.m. phone calls during the week. The bond is so tight that Smart was one of many formerly associated with the program who video recorded words of encouragement for the team prior to the start of the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
Those words weren’t unappreciated, senior center Zeke Marshall said. Marshall also knows what they’re up against.
“They’re just like us. They’re a mirror [image] of us. They play hard. They play hard defensively,” Marshall said. “It’s going to be a hard matchup. I’ll say that, but we’re ready for it.”
They’ll have to be. The Rams like to pressure just as the Zips do, running a scheme they call HAVOC.
“It’s a tough matchup because they’re a full-court pressure team, which minus a point guard makes it a bit more difficult,” Dambrot said.
Given the play of the Zips against Kent State and Ohio in the MAC Tournament, they should be capable of moving on.
“It’s obvious what we have to do. We have to handle the ball. VCU preys on people who don’t handle the ball well,” Dambrot said. “The last time we played them in here we did a pretty good job with the ball; we had a great chance to win. We have different circumstances now. We’re going to work hard on it the next three or four days.
I know their team and he knows our team, so it would be.”
The Zips used point guard Carmelo Betancourt and forward Nick Harney to run their offense during the MAC Tournament. They altered their defense to take Ohio’s D.J. Cooper out of the game Saturday night.
However, Betancourt said he’s ready.
“I think they prepared me. Kent is a really tough team,” he said. “Ohio is a really tough team, an experienced team that went to the Sweet 16. If we can beat a Sweet 16 team, we can go far in the tournament.”
He’s earned the confidence of his teammates, too.
“We still have a point guard,” junior forward Demetrius Treadwell said. “Carmelo Betancourt is a great point guard and I’m tired of people saying he’s not.”
Whatever happens, give the NCAA credit for creating an interesting matchup with storylines that go beyond the court. Marshall said that it might be a little bit awkward given the closeness of the coaches and programs and the love Smart sent their way before the MAC Tournament.
“He basically said ‘y’all have what it takes to make a run in the NCAA Tournament,’ ” Marshall said of the message’s content. “It is [awkward], but what he said is true. We are going to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.