The University of Akron basketball team faces a problem.
The Zips (21-4) have everything to lose and everything to gain when they welcome the North Dakota State (20-7) to Rhodes Arena at 7 p.m. in a game airing on ESPN2.
First, there’s the nation’s longest winning streak that stands at 17.
“We have to win every game because we don’t want to lose our streak. We can’t lose at home, and it’s coming together in March,” point guard Alex Abreu said after morning practice Thursday.
That’s the kind of metaphorical trophy that any opponent would love to walk out of Rhodes Arena owning. The Bison have struggled since being selected to participate in the BracketBusters game, going just 2-2 in the span.
Moreover they have lost their leading scorer in Taylor Braun, who had been averaging 15.2 points, and are generally hobbled, according to reports.
That has led them to focus on defense. Offensively, they are deliberate, playing more of a half-court game. As anyone who has followed the Zips this season knows, that kind of deliberate play which slows them down tends to affect them negatively. It happened against Ball State and Eastern Michigan.
The key to the Zips not being felled lies in being able to play the game at their speed and not taking the game lightly.
Zips coach Keith Dambrot doesn’t buy that his team is in a corner in what is billed as the last BracketBusters event.
“I don’t think it’s a no-win. It’s another top-100 game. We have to win the rest. All of them are no-wins really, but they’re wins. Ultimately, we have to win the last two games in March.”
But what if they don’t win the Mid-American Conference Tournament next month?
Therein lies the rub.
It would help the Zips greatly if they had an impressive showing against North Dakota State in a nationally televised game. Their game opens the BracketBusters weekend, and they have ESPN2 to showcase their efforts.
“The best thing about this game is that nobody else is playing, so everyone is going to watch the game,” Dambrot said.
Impress and open some eyes should be the mantra.
“These games here allow us a chance to get in the other way,” he said of possibly not getting the automatic bid a MAC Tournament title brings. “We just have to play as well as we can and not think of [stuff] like that.”
Abreu sees it as an opportunity.
“We take every game on TV as a chance to gain new fans, new followers, new people that believe in us and what we’re doing here,” he said. “Yes, we’re going to come out and basically show the world what we’ve got. Hopefully, they see that we are a tournament team, and we get the bid.”
But in a season that the Zips branded with the saying “think bigger,” Dambrot remains pragmatic with respect to how his team gets to the NCAA Tournament.
“The best way is to play our best basketball and win our last games,” he said. Until then, he said, they won’t get the benefit of the doubt with the NCAA’s selection committee.
The Zips most likely will be without senior guard Brian Walsh (eight points per game) tonight. Walsh twisted his ankle in practice Wednesday and walked with a noticeable limp Thursday. His only activity involved an exercise bike.
Depth isn’t a problem for Dambrot, but he will have to decide who fills Walsh’s shoes. Sophomore Deji Ibitayo (3.2 points per game) or freshman Reggie McAdams (4.7 points per game), two very different players, are the options.
Dambrot said that ultimately he’s looking for balance.
“I want a better shooter with [Nick] Harney and a worse shooter with Jake [Kretzer],” he said. “I want balance because they play sagging man, which means they’re going to give up some jump shots.”
Ibitayo’s strength is more intangible as he brings pure energy and emotion to his play, Dambrot said Thursday.
McAdams knows that he lacks the experience for a game of this worth, but one more than a few occasions this season he’s shown icy resolve in tough shooting circumstances.
“I’m going to try my hardest to bring the same intensity [Walsh] does on defense and just knock down shots like [Walsh] does,” McAdams said.
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.