Zeke Marshall spoke confidently and forcefully in a highlight video of the University of Akron’s 2012-13 men’s basketball season shown before the Zips received their MAC championship rings Friday night at Rhodes Arena.
It might have been the only time the departed 7-foot center crossed fans’ minds during UA’s opener against Coastal Carolina.
The Zips went 26-7 last season, reeled off the nation’s longest winning streak of 19 games and earned the school’s highest seed (12th) in the NCAA Tournament. Illnesses and the suspension of point guard Alex Abreu spelled the end of their season with a blowout loss to VCU.
Marshall is now playing professionally in Poland. The Zips have no one at the moment who will threaten his school record for blocked shots, although center Pat Forsythe and Nick Harney swatted away back-to-back attempts early in the second half.
But I still believe the 2013-14 Zips could be better than last year.
They have muscle (Demetrius “Tree” Treadwell). They have electrifying outside shooting (Jake Kretzer, Reggie McAdams). They have athleticism (Nick Harney, Quincy Diggs). They have balanced rebounding (with six players getting four or more). They have depth (nine players saw action when it counted). They have chemistry (with transfer Nyles Evans the only newcomer in the top nine).
There were lapses at the start of the second half and in the final six minutes of their 72-63 victory over Coastal Carolina. And these were not the same Chanticleers who defeated UA in overtime in last season’s opener. They lost two 1,000-point scorers and have seven newcomers.
But this season’s Zips could be just as impressive as they were during the Mid-American Conference tournament in March. Even a sub-par shooting night from 6-foot-7 power forward Treadwell, expected to be their leader, couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm.
“I think we’ll get nothing but better and better and better. But I could be wrong,” UA coach Keith Dambrot said.
Sophomores McAdams and Kretzer looked even more confident shooting from long range. Kretzer hit two 3-pointers, McAdams one during a 13-0 run that broke the game open in the second half. Harney was more of a physical presence inside. Harney and Diggs showed they could soar. Forsythe displayed quickness and a soft shooting touch around the hoop.
The biggest question facing Dambrot is who will be his most dependable point guard. Of the three candidates, only North Canton Hoover product Evans did not commit a turnover. Diggs, playing in his first game since the 2011-12 season after serving a year’s suspension for a violation of the student code of conduct, lost six turnovers.
The 2012 Sixth Man of the Year in the MAC, Diggs scored nine points in his first 10 minutes, but still showed his tendency to lose control.
“I had too many turnovers,” Diggs said afterward. “But today was a good test for me to see where I was.”
Betancourt added four turnovers as the Zips totaled 17. Some of UA’s miscues came on ill-timed lobs and alley-oop passes as the Zips seemed more than willing to showboat. Dambrot called Diggs and Harney “home run or strikeout hitters” because of their inconsistency.
There was a free-wheeling, no-holds-barred spirit from the Zips. That might have contributed to inconsistent shooting by Treadwell, Harney and Diggs, who combined to hit 14 of 38 from the field.
But when the Zips get things rolling, that looseness and their chemistry playing together could lead to displays of athleticism even more electrifying than what has been seen in Rhodes Arena of late.
“We’re way more athletic than we were last year at every position, especially having Quincy back,” Treadwell said.
In the past two years, Dambrot spoke respectfully of Marshall, insisting the big man changed the game just with his presence. That surely was true, although not always evident.
But at least on opening night, Marshall’s departure did not seem devastating to the UA program like it might have been at another school. Treadwell said the Zips had the entire preseason to get used to life without Marshall.
“We missed Zeke at the rim, you could see that,” Dambrot said.
Even without Marshall, the Zips seem well-armed for another run at the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps even better armed than they were before.
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.