Some of the faces and names have changed, but it’s now time to see whether the intensity remains.
The University of Akron and Ohio University basketball teams are both in the midst of transition as they meet today for the first of at least two games this season in Athens.
With each having lost the face of its program — center Zeke Marshall for UA and point guard D.J. Cooper for OU — the rivalry looks a tad different this year. Marshall is playing in the NBA D-League for the Maine Red Claws and Cooper is overseas playing professionally in Greece. Whether their absence changes the level of intensity remains to be seen.
“It’s going to be quite different,” senior forward Demetrius Treadwell said after Friday’s practice. “The past few years it’s been those two battling as two of the best players in the MAC. It’s going to be different, but we have to be ready to play, regardless.”
What has been consistent is the pedigree of the two teams in recent years. In the past five seasons either UA (three times) or OU (twice) has represented the Mid-American Conference in the NCAA Tournament in March. In the past seven seasons either team played in the MAC Tournament championship game.
“It doesn’t matter who plays. It’s Ohio (11-3, 1-0) and Akron (9-5, 1-0),” coach Keith Dambrot said. “Both teams are going to play, there’s no question about that.”
OU fans attempted to get under Treadwell’s skin prior to the start of the season. He said he took it all in good fun and it won’t serve as any extra motivation for him.
“I feel like every time I go out there I’m motivated, whether it’s OU, Buffalo, Kent, anybody,” he said. “I’m always 100 percent motivated.”
And Treadwell is helping to motivate those behind him.
Center Isaiah Johnson had a concept of the intensity of the rivalry between the two schools prior to arriving at UA, but he said he’s heard from vets.
“I just liked the atmosphere of the games,” said Johnson, a one-time OU recruit who watched games on television. “It should be really fun. Just from what I’ve seen there’s a lot of intensity and emotion that goes in the game. That’s what I love.”
Treadwell said that talking to them about playing at the school’s Convocation Center only offers so much perspective.
“You can tell them as much as you want, but only game experience playing in that environment is the best learning material,” he said. “You just tell them it’s going to be a hostile environment.”
And what will UA find? An offense now being run by point guard Stevie Taylor, who though not the scorer that Cooper was, plays efficiently and is averaging 7.6 points and 3.6 assists per game and leads his team in steals. Add to the mix guard Nick Kellogg’s 15 points per game and junior college transfer Maurice Ndour, who averages 14.5 points per game, and the Bobcats offer challenges.
“Their role guys have become their main guys, so they had some guys who people didn’t realize how good they were become good players,” Dambrot said.
What’s sure is that the MAC’s East Division, despite prognostications, is wide open. While it’s difficult to discern the importance of this game and the second one in Akron on Feb. 22, there’s little doubt that the opening salvo today represents a tone setter for each team’s conference schedule.
The Zips still have to show that they can come together as a team and the Bobcats will have to overcome the loss of forward Ricardo Johnson (8.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game), who suffered a double leg fracture last week.
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.