A seemingly throwaway game against Miami tonight at Rhodes Arena for the University of Akron might actually be their biggest game of the year.
“This is going to be the toughest game after the psychological impact,” Zips coach Keith Dambrot said. “We need to get through tomorrow’s game and then it’s really going to help us because it takes all the pressure off of us.”
Why such importance?
After yet another comeback win against Ohio last week, the Zips traveled to the University at Buffalo on Saturday with a 19-game win streak, the longest in the nation, and an undefeated mark in the Mid-American Conference. They left Alumni Arena with both marks gone.
“When we won, we thought of it as more of an accomplishment, not just another game in the MAC,” point guard Alex Abreu said of the OU win. “That loss [to Buffalo], all it really does is show us is that we’re not invincible. Anybody can beat us if they come to play.”
Buffalo proved that, and it serves as a lesson for UA.
In some of their victories during the streak, the Zips appeared to reflect a sense of the inevitable when down in those games.
In their initial games against Buffalo and Ohio, they fell behind by as many as 20 points before storming back to claim a win. They did the same against the Bobcats last Wednesday.
Against Buffalo, however, they couldn’t switch to the on position to race past the Bulls.
Is that a bad thing?
Ask Dambrot and the quick answer is “no.” The coaching staff now has the team’s undivided attention.
“At some point they have to believe what I tell them,” he said. “When you get beat like that, then they start to believe you a little more. The emotional impact of that, you have to watch the carryover. So that’s what concerns me.”
Senior guard Brian Walsh bluntly assessed the team’s mindset and play from Saturday, saying they were lackadaisical and flat. More importantly, Buffalo outplayed them, he said.
“Obviously you don’t want to drop a game to anybody,” he said. “Honestly, in my opinion, I think it was good for us because it’s going to help us refocus and become more hungry.”
That might be more difficult than fans understand. Last week’s emotional roller coaster exacted a toll.
“That’s an emotionally draining experience, especially after the high of the Ohio U game, then to come back and get beat at Buffalo, that’s hard. That’s hard on everyone,” Dambrot said.
That is why tonight is key. With two MAC games remaining — there’s a Friday night game with Kent State being televised nationally — re-establishing a winning attitude is necessary.
Dambrot said his team’s best basketball is ahead of them should they achieve that.
“We haven’t played our best basketball; that’s the thing. We have some good games left in us,” he said.
That message resonated with the team as the Zips went through their practice Monday morning at Rhodes Arena.
“The winning streak is just a fruit of our labor, so I would downplay that we won 19 straight even though that’s a big deal,” senior center Zeke Marshall said. “To us, we see it as that’s how we get to our goal. Maybe it’s better for us to know that we got that loss out of the way. Now people can stop talking about it and we can wholeheartedly focus on what we really want.”
Abreu said that ultimately the team was playing for the wrong reasons.
“We want to win every game, but that’s not the reason that [we should play],” he said. “Going undefeated that’s all cool. I’d rather lose now than later than go undefeated the whole time than lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.”
Here are where the Zips, who no longer are ranked in the USA Today poll, rank with the various entities that track RPI (ratings percentage index): ESPN (47), Ken Pom (54), NCAA (46) and Real Time RPI (46).
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. 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.