For 20 games, the University of Akron flew under the national radar.
Their postseason potential never drew mention, except for a break during the Jan. 26 Ohio State-Penn State game. When ESPN analyst Dan Dakich was asked who was his sleeper pick to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, Dakich chose UA.
The former player and assistant coach at Indiana under Bob Knight might no longer be a voice in the wilderness.
Saturday night before the most rabid crowd to sell out Rhodes Arena and an ESPNU audience, UA smacked Ohio 86-72 in a showdown of Mid-American Conference co-leaders. Meanwhile in Lawrence, Kan., Oklahoma State upset Kansas, snapping the nation’s longest winning streak at 18 games.
That distinction now belongs to the Zips (17-4, 8-0), who have won 13 consecutive games. It is the longest string in the MAC since Kent State reeled off 21 in a row in 2001-02.
“Dan Dakich is a genius” T-shirts might soon be in UA’s marketing future.
“We’ve been flying under the radar for too long,” Zips junior point guard Alex Abreu proclaimed afterward. “It’s finally time for some national recognition. Hopefully it will bring some positive energy around this program, we’ve been needing it for a while. It’s going to be great. We don’t plan on losing anytime soon.”
For years, UA coach Keith Dambrot has talked about his program reaching the next level. He’s yearned for the Zips to be spoken of in the same breath with NCAA Cinderellas like George Mason, Butler, Gonzaga and Virginia Commonwealth.
The nation’s longest winning streak, if they can keep it going, could be the key to the mid-major castle.
It could bring the Zips some long-sought respect.
“I’m not worried about respect; you’ve got to earn your respect,” Dambrot said. “What I like, it keeps us in the mind of not only the writers nationally, but it keeps you in the mind of the [NCAA selection] committee. If we can continue to win, then they have to look at us. We tried to put a good schedule together. We didn’t win all of them, but it’s obvious we can play with those people. It keeps you in that thought process, which I think is huge.”
In Dambrot’s ninth season at UA, the Zips have won at least 22 games in each of the past seven seasons. Twice, Dambrot has taken them to the NCAAs, in 2009 and 2011, when they lost their opening games to Gonzaga and Notre Dame, respectively.
Dambrot believes this is the strongest team — as in muscle — he’s ever had. The lineup boasts 7-foot shot-blocking machine Zeke Marshall and rapidly improving 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman Pat Forsythe, along with powerful 6-7 junior forward Demetrius Treadwell.
“There’s no question that we have the size to compete with anybody in the country, which most mid-majors don’t. We’re big, strong, long at most spots other than the point guard spot,” Dambrot said. “If we can get in the tournament and play a reasonably good game, we’re a good enough team to beat some people.”
But there is no escaping the reality that the MAC is guaranteed only one NCAA bid, to its tournament winner. UA learned that ugly truth last season, when the Zips went 22-12, won the league’s regular-season crown and reached the tournament’s title game. They fell 64-63 to Ohio, then watched the Bobcats advance to the Sweet 16.
“It’s like the ignition to our fire inside,” Abreu said of the tournament loss. “We know somebody took something from us that belonged to us. We’re going to be back this year to reclaim it.”
If Dambrot has hopes of a second berth for the MAC, that’s a thought best kept out of team meetings. He must get the Zips to focus on reaching the NCAA Tournament the only way they know how.
“I did talk to guys about the opportunity we have,” Dambrot said. “You want to be the best team we’ve ever had. There’s pressure on you, regardless. I want ’em to have fun, but understand you have an opportunity to do some things our other guys haven’t done.”
There will be no quashing the big dreams, which Abreu did not hesitate to share.
“For me, all I think is national championship,” Abreu said. “It might sound crazy to a lot of people, but I don’t think we have anything to envy of anybody in the country. We’re full at every position. We’re big, we’re strong, we have guard play, we have shooters. There’s nothing that we really lack other than confidence and knowing we’re the best team.”
When it comes to 15 Zips players believing they can hold their own on the national stage, it’s one down, 14 to go.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the 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.