The season of thinking bigger is starting to play out beyond expectations for the University of Akron basketball team.
Monday the Zips found themselves where no UA basketball team has been before — in the top 25 of one of the national basketball polls.
The Zips are ranked No. 24 on the USA Today Coaches Poll and received 43 votes and are 28th in the Associated Press poll. They have made it difficult to ignore their accomplishments this season, including a nation-best winning streak they extended to 18 games in front of a national television audience Friday against North Dakota State in ESPN’s annual BracketBusters event.
“I think that deserves some recognition. I don’t care what league you’re in,” guard Brian Walsh said of the winning streak. “That’s a hard task to do in Division I college basketball and we’ve been able to rattle it off against good quality teams.”
Coach Keith Dambrot, who holds a vote in the USA Today poll, refused to say whether he voted for his team, but he understands the ramifications of the achievement for pride and, probably more important, that mantra of thinking bigger.
“It means a lot to the fans and the program [but] as to the outcome of the games, no,” he said. “It matters to the program building and the fan expectation and where you are on the national scene.”
And that national scene includes recruiting. UA possesses many of the ingredients to lure impressive recruits, including a players lounge that offers refuge when they’re on campus.
Being ranked could be one of the last ingredients to sustainability as a regional power and raising the program’s profile to the level of a school such as Gonzaga, which has a total enrollment of 7,827 in Spokane, Wash.
The program has the potential to evolve into one that no one questions why a seven-footer such as Zeke Marshall chooses the Zips over a list of bigger colleges.
“It’s a good compliment for a mid-major that was decently known when I got here is now getting more well-known now that I’m leaving,” Marshall said of being ranked. “I wanted to show the country that it doesn’t matter what school you go to, you can still make a difference, get noticed and do well.”
The players understand the implications of being ranked, but they realize that it’s not the ultimate goal.
“At the end of the day, we could care less if we’re ranked or not. It would look nice next to our name when we’re playing. We don’t care,” Walsh said. “We want to just win every game left on our schedule. We’re just extremely focused.”
“In my eyes, it doesn’t change much,” he said. “We’re getting recognized for how well we’re playing, but we’re not going to change the way we play, how we approach the game — anything.”
Dambrot clearly has his gaze focused on one goal, making the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m just into winning the last six games of the year,” he said. “If we win the last six games of the year, then we’ll be in the top 25 for sure.”
Walsh, who went down during practice last week, scores points for speedy recoveries. The day after twisting his ankle, the senior appeared as if he wouldn’t be back on the court anytime soon. Monday morning he was with the first team participating in practice.
Five or more hours per day of rehab got it back together, Walsh said. Now he expects to play when the Zips take on Ohio University on Wednesday in Athens.
Marshall has been chosen one of 25 finalists for the Lou Henson Award, which recognizes the best mid-major basketball player in the country. There is a component for fan voting that will ultimately play a 33-percent role in the selection process. Fans can vote by visiting VoteLouHenson.com.
Marshall will likely face stiff competition from Doug McDermott of Creighton. D.J. Cooper of Ohio is also a finalist.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at https://ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.