The University of Akron men’s basketball team will begin conference play riding a five-game winning streak and with more than a dose of confidence as they prepare to defend their regular-season crown. First up for the Zips will be Western Michigan on Wednesday night at Rhodes Arena.
UA stumbled a couple of times during the run-up to the conference schedule with a 9-4 record. The Zips could easily have 12 wins, were it not for a couple of close calls and some adversity caused by the eligibility of a couple of players.
“We had a couple of losses the first half of the season, but it doesn’t take away our confidence. We feel stronger than ever,” point guard Alex Abreu said Monday after practice.
It’s a sentiment coach Keith Dambrot echoed.
“We would have rather kept on playing, but we had to do what we had to do,” he said. “We’re ready. We’re getting better. We had two really good days of practice.”
It’s during the current five-game run that the Zips have done what winning programs are supposed to do — get fat in the win column and build momentum heading into conference play.
They’ve done plenty of that with only the four-point win against Princeton being close. The others were blowouts, with the average margin of victory better than 23 points in all five game.
“This is when it all really, really counts. The first games are good to build your record and play some high majors and see where you are at, but none of that stuff really matters,” senior guard Brian Walsh said. “Those are just tests to get us ready for the MAC season. This is what our program builds itself on. This is the time of year when we get better — over Christmas break.”
But the key to success will be whether the Zips know who they are as a team. With the MAC’s West Division likely playing runner-up to the East again, UA’s road to the NCAA Tournament will not be an easy one. But the Zips will be looking to continue to win with a strong inside game.
Senior center Zeke Marshall (13.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.8 blocks) has matured into the dominant force many expected when he arrived on campus. His frontcourt partner, junior Demetrius Treadwell (10.9 points, 6.3 rebounds), has raised his game thus far this season, giving the Zips the chance to have the conference’s dominating big man tandem.
But even with that, the reserves in junior forward Nick Harney (9.9 points, 3.8 rebounds) and 6-foot-11 freshman center Pat Forsythe (4.9 points, 3.5 rebounds) give them depth.
“Last year, we didn’t know what to expect on an everyday basis. But this year we not only have Zeke as a monster, we have Pat Forsythe coming from the bench, which gives Zeke that confidence to not be afraid to be in foul trouble,” Abreu said.
They do, however, know what to expect in the coming weeks in the East Division as UA, Kent State and Ohio are bunched at the top of the standings with nonconference play ending.
“Ohio has slipped up a couple of times, but they’re still a problem and they’re probably going to give us problems and Kent State is always tough and always close,” Walsh said. “They’re our biggest rival. There’s no easy game in the MAC, to be honest.”
The harder work begins Wednesday.
Expect forward Chauncey Gilliam to miss the next couple of weeks due to surgery on his meniscus in his left knee. Nick Harney, who had been starting in the place of Walsh (back), will see some time in a starting role.
“I think we have everything figured out. The biggest thing now with Chauncey’s knee surgery, we had to retool a little bit, but we’ve been through it enough times,” Dambrot 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.