AUBURN HILLS, MICH.: Another NCAA Tournament season for the University of Akron men’s basketball team brings questions.
Coach Keith Dambrot answered one of them after the Zips won the Mid-American Conference Tournament, saying he was “too old to leave” at age 54.
“This is where all my friends and family are,” he added.
But that doesn’t mean Dambrot won’t push for a new arena, along with improvements to 5,500-seat Rhodes Arena in the interim.
The possibility of installing backs on all seats is being considered, UA director of athletics Tom Wistrcill said before the Zips took on Virginia Commonwealth Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA South Regional at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
“There are lots of discussions about a new arena or renovating the JAR,” Wistrcill said Wednesday evening. “A lot of discussions behind the scenes, but nothing we’re ready to announce yet.”
Asked about a rumored seat reduction, Wistrcill said, “Unfortunately if you do renovate the JAR, any time you move from bleacher seats to chair backs, you have to lose some seats. It wouldn’t be very many because you can do some things in the corners. But when you look at it, two-thirds of the crowd has a really uncomfortable seat. We can make that better.”
After the MAC title game, which sent the Zips to their third NCAA Tournament in his nine years, Dambrot said, “I have a big mouth,” leading some to presume he would lobby for a new facility.
“Money doesn’t grow on trees,” Wistrcill said. “There are some opportunities and we’re going to work hard at that here. We have a lot going for us. Our fans have been wonderful. If we’re going to end up building a new arena or renovating the JAR, we’re going to need the support of all our fans and donors.”
Wistrcill hopes UA can reach the level of programs like Creighton or Gonzaga, but doesn’t foresee the Zips’ budget being as big as those schools.
“There’s certainly things we can improve on as a program when you compare us to some of the high mid-majors. It’s hard to consider Creighton or Gonzaga, they’re not really mid-majors, what they have and what they spend,” Wistrcill said. “That’s our goal, to be one of those teams that is consistently in the NCAA Tournament and winning games and being that nightmare team that nobody wants to see across from them on the bracket.”
But putting together a schedule that will allow the Zips to raise their RPI won’t be easy.
“If you think about where we were during our win streak, if we’d won those last few games and lost in the MAC Tournament, we would have had an at-large bid,” Wistrcill said. The Zips saw their 19-game winning streak snapped March 2 at Buffalo, then two games later lost their regular-season finale to Kent State. “We had the right resume. We played the right amount of high majors; we won enough games.
“I think you have to have the balance of both, which is hard at this level. Most of the really good teams don’t want to play Akron because we’re a good basketball team. They’d rather play someone who’s not as good as us.”
Wistrcill said benefits from the matchup with VCU and ex-Zips assistant Shaka Smart won’t be felt immediately.
“Any time you’re a one-bid league and you get in, that helps your program tremendously, both from the national publicity you get, the recruiting, you have an opportunity to engage more donors who want to follow a winner,” Wistrcill said. “You can’t measure the direct impact right now, other than it’s a really big deal to the Akron Zips. In the future, that’s when you really collect on the winnings.”
Assistant Charles Thomas, in his third season at UA, spent 15 years playing professional basketball in the U.S., Australia and Sweden. That included 1991-93 with the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys,” so walking into The Palace Wednesday was a blast from his past.
“I told Steve McNees, ‘That used to be my parking spot right there,’ ” Thomas said of the Zips’ video coordinator. “We used to sell out, 22,000 people every night. I played with Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman.”
As for the controversial Rodman, who recently returned from North Korea, Thomas said, “He only had two tattoos. He wasn’t crazy when I played with him; he didn’t get crazy until he left here. Dennis Rodman might be one of the smartest guys I know.”
Another similarity between Dambrot and Smart: Seated next to Smart at Wednesday’s coaches meeting, Dambrot found he had no pen and asked Smart for one. Smart offered Dambrot’s favorite brand, which Smart still uses.
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.