Bigger isn’t necessarily better.
But for the University of Akron men’s basketball team, it’s all about bigger — at least with respect to ambition.
The Zips met the media and their fans during their annual media day on Wednesday at the Tommy Evans Lounge at Rhodes Arena, and it’s clear from coach Keith Dambrot and his players that there’s only one goal in their collective gaze: having the program take a leap ahead.
“What we’re trying to do is beat the big boys on a consistent basis,” Dambrot said. “There’s a reason they have all that money in their programs — they want to win.”
And so do the Zips, but Dambrot is wily enough to realize that you do not join the Gonzagas of the mid-major world without paying some dues first.
They start anteing up at Coastal Carolina on Nov. 9 in Conway, S.C. After what should be a warm-up, it’s a steady diet of stiff challenges as they head to Bayamon, Puerto Rico, — point guard Alex Abreu’s hometown — where they are guaranteed a meeting against Oklahoma State in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. That tournament is filled with the likes of Providence, Massachusetts, Tennessee and North Carolina State.
Eventually, other prominent mid-majors show up on the schedule.
“We’re trying to think bigger and take down the big dogs this year, not just one, [but] as many as we can get,” senior guard Brian Walsh said.
Dambrot called the schedule daunting, but it’s ambition that serves a broader goal for the Zips and their basketball program.
“We kind of had a plan all along as to what we did with our schedule. In order to get good players you have to win, and we made sure we won. Now we’re trying to get in at-large position,” he said.
Considering the Mid-American Conference almost never receives an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, it’s definitely ambitious for the school.
“We feel like we have a good plan with that. We feel like if we win enough games against those teams, we’ll be an at-large team.”
Stop in paradise
It just happens that the Puerto Rico Tip-Off is being held in Abreu’s hometown.
“[The] facility is five minutes from my house walking. I’ve been there a couple of times,” he said.
It will give him a chance to play before a home crowd again, even if the game is scheduled for a 10:30 a.m. start Nov. 15. Still there will be a touch of pressure for Abreu, a junior point guard, who averaged 9.6 points and 4.8 assists per game.
“It’s natural to want to do more, so I have to keep myself in my game, my coach’s game plan and make sure I execute for my team, just make sure everyone plays well and make sure the team runs how it should,” he said.
Battle for power
Dambrot stayed mum regarding who would replace departed forward Nikola Cvetinovic in the starting rotation. In Nick Harney and Demetrius Treadwell, he has two options. Harney is stronger on offense, but Treadwell is a presence in the lane, who not only can score from there but can intimidate on the defensive end.
“Tree and Harney are good players. It’s just whether I want to start them or have them come off the bench. They’re both going to get minutes,” Dambrot said.
Look for freshman Jake Kretzer to see some time at the spot, too.
Forward Rachel Tecca, who played high school ball at Archbishop Hoban, received the green light to go 100 percent Oct. 3. Tecca has spent the better part of a year rehabbing a knee after surgery on an anterior cruciate ligament.
“That was my first time to go 100 percent and be fully cleared. It was very exciting for me,” she said.
Coach Jodi Kest quickly jumped in.
“Me too,” she said.
There’s good reason for the excitement. The Zips women’s team was supposed to be better than its 14-18 record last season, but when Tecca went down, so did their fortunes. They rebounded somewhat, and players such as Sina King worked hard to pick up some of the slack.
If Tecca is able to return to form, the Zips should be a lot more competitive, and it should show up in the win column.
However, it normally takes more than a year to return to full strength after ACL surgery.
“I’ll take Rachel’s 80 percent over someone else’s 100 percent any day,” Kest 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.