CLEVELAND: During the University of Akron’s victory over Buffalo in the women’s Mid-American Conference Tournament on Thursday, UA men’s coach Keith Dambrot tweeted out thanks to the family and friends who have shown him support in the past week. He also put his heart on his sleeve confessing that he’d been a bit down.
Just over a week ago, Dambrot and his team contended with the arrest of junior point guard Alex Abreu on two felony charges related to drugs. Not that the timing of any such situation can be considered good, Abreu’s arrest came the day before the final regular-season game against rival Kent State, a game the Zips lost.
The MAC Tournament also loomed. The top-seeded Zips play a semifinal game against Kent State at 6:30 tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.
Players who were asked confessed that Abreu’s arrest left them shellshocked last week, but it gradually wore off. For Dambrot, it’s different.
“I think we still are,” Dambrot said after Wednesday’s practice. “It’s like any other tragic event that happens in your life. Stunning events affect people differently. The emotions of the season we had with 19 straight wins, [Abreu] happening and then the length of the season, it’s going to be one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had to deal with.”
Dambrot might have taught his team too well. At practice, they’ve been both business-like and loose, if that’s possible. They still joked. They still played. And they still got on one another when someone made a mistake.
For anyone who wants to characterize the team’s mood, they only need to look to senior center Zeke Marshall, who has spent four years of his life helping Dambrot build a better basketball program at UA.
“We have to handle our business. That’s what the mood is,” Marshall said. “We can’t dwell on it right now or the season is going to be over. We have to do what we can without him.”
What can they do without Abreu?
The Zips didn’t know until the second half of the Kent State game when they nearly pulled a Chris Angel-type magic trick and came back to catch the Golden Flashes.
“We were just discombobulated,” Marshall said. “Our chemistry was out of tune when we started that game. We got our feet under us and we were finally able to actually starting playing like we usually do.”
Senior forward Chauncey Gilliam agreed.
“The second half we came out and we were fine,” he said. “We got the jitters out. We got the butterflies out. We’re just as good as we were before and before that night.”
They won’t be going out on the court alone.
In addition to fans, Zips notables such as Romeo Travis and Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart will be with them, courtesy of video messages they recorded for the team in the past week to remind them how the UA program responds to adversity.
Prior to Thursday they’d just seen one, but guard Brian Walsh said it meant a lot.
Still, it’s not difficult to tell that Dambrot remains in a quandary regarding the team’s situation.
“[We] know we have good players, but can we put it together?” he asks. “After 30 games, to change gears, that’s hard. We have less pressure in some regards. We just have to go out and play.”
He knows his players will show up, but the wild card in this entire situation is point guard Carmelo Betancourt, a true freshman from Puerto Rico. No one should expect anything too flashy from Betancourt, who will start in place of Abreu at point guard.
He needs to get the ball to Marshall and junior forward Demetrius Treadwell, who in turn, when they don’t have shots, have to kick it out to the Zips’ shooters, who need to make some shots to loosen things up inside.
“It’s the same,” Betancourt, who shook off early jitters against Kent State to manage the game well last week, said of the team’s mindset. “We have to do it for everybody. We’ve just got to win. Play defense. Make shots. That’s our mindset. It’s been that way all year.”
Marshall views winning as an obligation even as the specter of skepticism hovers about the team.
“[It’s] just like all of coach’s previous teams that weren’t given the benefit of the doubt when they were going to win, when they somehow got to the MAC championship,” he said.
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.