It’s natural for the Zips to think about what might have been if they had won last year’s Mid-American Conference Tournament.
They’ve had to think about it since losing a 64-63 heartbreaker to Ohio last March in the championship game at Quicken Loans Arena.
“A lot went through my mind because I missed that last shot to beat them,” University of Akron senior guard Brian Walsh said. “It was hard to watch [the NCAA Tournament] in the sense that that could have been us.”
Zips point guard Alex Abreu agreed.
“It always goes through your mind that that could have been us,” he said. “Obviously, you can’t help but be jealous because that was our goal and we got to watch somebody else fulfill our dreams.”
Dreams begin again at 5 p.m. today when the Zips take on the Bobcats at sold-out Rhodes Arena.
Thus far, the scenario of the MAC coming down to these two teams is playing out as expected. Both are undefeated in the conference.
Today’s game is the first of two in the regular season that could lead, like last year, to a third in the MAC Tournament.
In other words, there’s plenty of regular season to go before either team can think of a championship.
Fans of both programs might have been pointing to this game on their calendars, but not the players.
“I think we’ve been building up and getting better,” said Abreu, who is averaging 9.3 points and 5.8 assists. “We definitely look at every game the same. We think we should win every game. There’s obviously the added pressure and the hype about this game. But we try to win every game when we go out there.”
That pragmatic approach permeates the team.
“We can’t emphasize this game more than others,” said Walsh, who is averaging 7.5 points per game. “We can’t make it something bigger than it is. It was nice to play seven games before we played them. I wouldn’t say [they were] a warm-up. All those games were tough. There were a couple of games that were really close.”
Games against Ball State (too close for comfort) and Buffalo (which forced the Zips to overcome a 20-point deficit) offered learning experiences. In that respect, the Zips (16-4, 7-0) have been tested. They will definitely need those experiences against the Bobcats (15-5, 6-0).
“They’ve got good players. They’ve got winning guys, winning attitude, good belief structure just like we do,” UA coach Keith Dambrot said. “It should be a good ballgame.”
Ohio has an impressive starting lineup led by senior point guard D.J. Cooper, who is averaging 14.6 points and a conference-leading 8.2 assists per game.
Abreu said Cooper has shown confidence in his offensive game, pulling up to take shots from the perimeter and, as usual, he’s going to be looking to get his teammates involved.
“You can expect him to be pretty aggressive coming in here,” Abreu said.
The Zips hope to make it an either-or proposition for Cooper on their court.
“You can’t let him get assists and points,” Dambrot said. “I think that’s key.”
The Zips must continue to be strong inside. In the past, the Bobcats have double-teamed senior center Zeke Marshall (12.8 points, 6.6 rebounds) in the post. They will likely try it again, but they have to contend with more than Marshall inside. Forward Demetrius Treadwell (10.5 points, 7.5 rebounds) has also been a force for the Zips.
However the matchups play out, whether it’s Marshall or Treadwell, the Zips will have to be aware of Ohio forward Reggie Keely (11.5 points, four rebounds), who moved into the starting lineup his senior season for his ability to finish at the rim.
UA could be fighting external forces as well.
After an armed robbery near the Ohio campus Wednesday, the conference postponed the Bobcats’ game against Eastern Michigan, giving them extra time to focus on the Zips.
“I don’t think any of that really matters,” Dambrot said. “They know what we’re going to do. We know what they’re going to do, and whoever plays the best is going to win. We have to play to our strengths and they have to play to their strengths.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.