University of Akron men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot heard the grousing over the Zips’ lack of quality opponents.
But Dambrot had a plan. First he wanted to establish a successful program. Now that UA has become one of only seven teams in the nation with at least 22 wins each of the past six seasons, he’s set his sights on a possible at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s one reason why the 2012-13 Zips’ schedule includes at least 11 teams that played in the 2012 postseason and at least eight foes that had 20 or more victories. Depending on what happens in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament and in UA’s BracketBusters game, those numbers could jump to 14 and 11, respectively.
But for UA to succeed with its big-time schedule, it will need a big-time performance from 7-foot senior center Zeke Marshall.
There’s no question Marshall — a McKeesport, Pa., native — is a shot-blocking machine. With his 7-foot-5 wingspan, Marshall has already set the UA career record for blocks with 246. His average of 2.85 per game in the 2011-12 regular season ranked 13th in NCAA Division I, a list led by Kentucky’s Anthony Davis (4.62), the first pick in the NBA Draft.
But in the 105 games Marshall has played for the Zips in three years, he has scored 20 or more points just four times and has had only three double-doubles.
For the Zips to take another leap in mid-major respectability, Marshall must channel his inner beast.
Junior point guard Alex Abreu tells Marshall that all the time. The two are what Abreu called “front-door neighbors” at 22 Exchange and Abreu said he’s always going to his room and saying, “Zeke, are you doing push-ups or something?”
“I’m trying to get him to unleash that fury inside,” Abreu said Wednesday as UA held basketball media day at Rhodes Arena. “I cannot get off his back. I try to make him mad and make sure he’s ready to play. He doesn’t get mad at me. The only person he gets mad at is Coach. He’s a pretty good listener.”
Abreu agreed that UA needs Marshall’s fury to beat its well-known non-MAC foes such as Creighton, which finished No. 2 in Collegeinsider.com’s mid-major top 25 poll in April. (MAC Tournament champion Ohio, which reached the NCAA Sweet 16, was No. 9.) The Zips’ Puerto Rico schedule could include games against Oklahoma State, Tennessee and N.C. State.
“He needs to step up to the plate and be the big man he’s supposed to be and the NBA prospect he’s supposed to be for us to not only compete, but to have the chance to win,” Abreu said.
Marshall might finally have the strength to do it. Dambrot said Marshall is now bench-pressing 300 pounds and doing a team-high 25 pull-ups.
“He’s plenty strong enough, trust me,” Dambrot said. “Zeke has spent more time on his own than he ever has and has done a tremendous job trying to get better. He’s done a terrific job of putting himself in position, both physically and mentally, to take the next step.
“Now it’s his belief in himself. He’s talented enough to play at the next level. He just has to believe how good he really is.”
In the past three years, Dambrot hasn’t been able to count on Marshall’s enormous talent showing up on a nightly basis.
Marshall believes he plays his best in big games, but the numbers don’t necessarily show it. His 20-point efforts came against North Carolina A&T and Arkansas-Pine Bluff last season, and against Youngstown State and Kent State his sophomore year. He had double-doubles against Arkansas-Little Rock in Las Vegas, at home against KSU and in his first career start, a 2009 game against Austin Peay.
“Now it’s a matter of showing up in every game and I’m going to play even better in bigger games,” Marshall vowed.
But there’s no question Marshall has improved. His field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and points and rebounding averages have gone up each season, along with his assists, steals and blocked shot totals. This season Dambrot wants Marshall to work on his rebounding after averaging 5.4 per game as a junior.
Abreu thinks Marshall will be helped by the presence of 6-foot-11 freshman Pat Forsythe, a Brunswick High School product who played seven games at West Virginia before receiving a medical redshirt. Abreu thinks Forsythe can help lessen Marshall’s anxiety over foul trouble.
“That allows Zeke to play pressure-free and play his real game,” Abreu said.
But Forsythe, although “strong as an ox” according to Dambrot, cannot affect the game around the rim like Marshall, at least not at this point.
Marshall’s “front-door neighbor” isn’t the only one prodding Marshall to reach his potential. Marshall said Dambrot still calls him every night to talk about how his day went, keeping basketball out of it.
“He’s pushing me,” Marshall said. “As much as I hate it, in the end I really know why he’s doing it. He wants the best for everybody. He says, ‘You have a chance to do something that no one else around here can do.’ ”
Since Marshall arrived on campus, Dambrot has had two goals in mind — to prepare Marshall for the NBA and for Marshall to take the Zips to the next level. For the Zips to make that leap against the toughest schedule of Dambrot’s tenure, their reluctant star must morph into a monster.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. 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.