The class of 2013 — four players who signed national letters of intent to play basketball at the University of Akron — will fit in with coach Keith Dambrot’s mantra of “think bigger.”
All four are at least 6 feet 6 inches tall. Dambrot is following a blueprint to build a basketball program to compete with major universities.
When talking about the process, he mentions Gonzaga, the Washington university that has surprised more than a few major college teams. Whether the Zips win the Mid-American Conference Tournament, Dambrot wants to ensure that his team receives an invitation to March Madness.
“In order to play with the big guys, you have to have big guys,” Dambrot said.
That wasn’t always the case for the Zips. Players tended to be smaller and assembled for the conference.
“We’ve consistently tried to get bigger and stronger, and this class is bigger and stronger than some of our others,” Dambrot said.
Here’s a look at that class:
Kwan Cheatham, power forward, 6-foot-9
Winton Woods High School (Cincinnati)
Cheatham averaged 12.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 blocked shots and 1.1 steals as a junior, numbers that would impress anyone.
Winton Woods coach Donnie Gillespie mentioned Cheatham’s basketball IQ several times in an interview. Gillespie is impressed by Cheatham’s ability to absorb information about the game.
“The biggest change and his biggest growth has been his ability to increase his basketball IQ and his mental capacity of just thinking through the game,” Gillespie said. “He’s a young guy, physically. He’s just now coming into his physicality, but his mental [game] is the most impressive thing to me right now.”
The fact that he’s growing into his body — he recently shot up from 6-foot-3 to his present height, a gain of 6 inches — shouldn’t be considered a detriment.
“A lot of times you have that smaller body and those guard skills. He’s had the opportunity to see the game from a guard position as well as a big-man position,” Gillespie said.
B.J. Gladden, small forward, 6-foot-6
Olympic High School (Charlotte, N.C.)
According to ESPN, Gladden ranks as the 31st best player in North Carolina, averaging 19 points and nine rebounds as a junior. Dambrot likes Gladden because he possesses diverse basketball skills and can shoot. But Dambrot is realistic about why the Zips were able to add Gladden to the class of 2013.
“He’s big, strong — diversified and can handle the ball,” Dambrot said. “He’s a guy we probably don’t sniff if it weren’t for the relationship.”
Zips assistant coach Terry Weigand played with Gladden’s uncle, Lebron Gladden, at Ashland University.
The Zips might have caught a break with Gladden in another way. Not many colleges were sure if he was going to be a member of the class of 2013 or 2014.
Aaron Jackson, guard, 6-foot-6
Lincoln High School (Gahanna)
Jackson averaged 15.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists in his junior year and is a two-time all-league selection. His coach, Tony Staib, said that the Zips are receiving the ultimate versatile player.
“At the high school level, he can guard positions one through five. He’s athletic enough to guard a point guard, and big and strong enough to guard a post,” Staib said. “I think at the college level, he’ll definitely be able to guard positions one through four.”
Dambrot will love his defensive game, but Staib said that he’s as impressive offensively, possessing the ability to score multiple ways, to shoot the 3-pointer and to play above the rim.
Staib said the biggest adjustment that he’ll have to make is dealing with the speed and intensity of the college game.
“The sooner he understands that and learns that, the quicker he’ll see the floor,” he said.
Isaiah Johnson, center, 6-foot-10
Walnut Hills High School (Cincinnati)
Coach Ricardo Hill gives Zips fans something to look forward to when he describes Johnson, who averaged 17.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots per game in his junior year.
“He’s a true back-to-the-basket big man that you can throw the ball into and he’s going to be a threat. He has the big body,” Hill said. “He has a soft touch and he uses his body well.”
Should Johnson make a successful transition to college ball, that could mean domination.
To be able to use those skills, Johnson will have to improve his conditioning, Hill said. Playing in a more up-tempo system should help with that this season.
“He’s like an old-school player where he’s a true center. You don’t find them out there anymore,” 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.