Given the University of Akron’s situation at point guard, any casual observer would suspect that one person would have the weight of the world on his shoulders as the Zips prepare to play their opening game in the NCAA Tournament in at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan on Thursday.
Freshman Carmelo Betancourt found himself thrust in the role of the starter after police arrested Alex Abreu on felony drug-related charges two weeks ago.
For someone put in an unenviable situation, no one could blame Betancourt had he panicked. Instead he proved calm and cool in steadying the Zips enough to win the Mid-American Conference Tournament last weekend and gain entry to the national championship tournament.
“I think I have no pressure on me right now. I feel like we’re going to win, and there’s no pressure for us,” Betancourt said after practice Monday.
That confident attitude, however, doesn’t come without context.
“I think the coaches and practices have been really tough for me in a sense that I’ve had to work through everything and learn every little bit of the system. I think right now it’s showing,” he said.
Even Betancourt’s mother, Lyane Carbonell, knows her son’s game. He’s the young man who stepped into his Puerto Rican team’s starting gig after a teammate went down due to injury. He’s succeeded at every level, including playing on two Puerto Rican national teams.
He is a passing-first guard and pesky on defense.
“I believe his experience on the national team helped him a lot, having to travel. That helps you prepare yourself. He handles the pressure very well,” Carbonell said by phone from Puerto Rico.
Three games are too few to tell whether that will be the case over the long haul, but Zips coach Keith Dambrot has reason to be optimistic. Betancourt’s assist-to-turnover ratio has risen to 1.5 from .86 since being inserted in the starting role.
More proof, however, comes in actual play, and Dambrot gave Betancourt credit for playing a significant role in the defensive outburst that allowed the Zips to dominate the second half of the MAC championship game against Ohio last Saturday.
“The only thing I know is that was one of the better halves we played all year,” Dambrot said. “Were we any good on offense? Probably not. But we were so good on defense that it didn’t matter. That’s what we have to do against [Virginia Commonwealth].”
Betancourt might never gain Abreu’s offensive prowess, but his teammates respect what he brings to the team. Junior forward Demetrius Treadwell stated plainly that people needed to stop saying that the Zips didn’t have a point guard. And junior Nick Harney has offered support, as well.
“I feel like the biggest responsibility is making sure Melo feels comfortable because other than just basketball, Alex was like Melo’s big brother,” Harney said. “So losing that, Melo was going through that. Not on the court, but off-the-court stuff.”
It’s likely that Betancourt felt the sting of Abreu’s arrest more than anyone else. Betancourt worked to help Abreu get his weight down during the early part of the season. Friendly adversaries back in Puerto Rico, a shared heritage and culture helped them become friends.
“It was shocking for me. It was tough. I couldn’t get over it,” Betancourt said. “The Kent State game we lost, I was not over it.
“I was still thinking about it. My mind was in the game, but just a little bit I was still thinking about it. I was hurt.”
Carbonell noticed the difference in him after the incident.
“It’s something that touched him very, very, very close,” she said.
Abreu hasn’t been allowed around the team formally, Dambrot said, because he prefers that the team continue to heal.
That process is well under way for Betancourt.
“It wasn’t pressure filled,” Betancourt said of the Abreu situation. “My game is the same. Play defense and be simple. I think it was from the personal standpoint. I feel for his family. That’s my brother.”
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.