The University of Akron men’s basketball team has some optimism heading into a two-game road trip that starts Saturday at Ball State.

After a rocky start in the league, the Zips have won their last two Mid-American Conference games.

“I think offensively we have [it],” UA coach John Groce said when asked about things looking up. “We’ve moved up in league standings. We’ve taken better care of the ball, statistically. We’re taking good shots. We’re taking care of the ball. We’re executing our stuff better. Offensively, I think we’re starting to get some traction.”

In wins over Northern Illinois and Ohio, the Zips averaged 76.5 points.

But until they add something else — namely defense — to their optimism, road wins will be tough to acquire.

“I think we’re starting to get better on the offensive end,” guard Jimond Ivey said. “We got to do a lot of work on the defensive end, though. I feel like we’re taking strides from where we started.”

In five road games, the Zips have given up an average of 75 points, and are scoring 63. They have put together decent halves in a couple of those efforts, including the second half at Toledo, but it hasn’t been enough.

In the MAC, UA ranks last in defensive efficiency. The Zips are at the bottom or near it in a couple of other categories, including scoring defense.

“Until we start to play better on that end of the floor, as I told them the other day, we will be inconsistent at best,” Groce said. “We have to change some of our habits on that end; they have to get better.”

The first-year coach specifically mentioned rebounding, but especially defense among the problems facing UA on the road.

“The teams that play the best on the road are the teams that take care of the ball and rebound,” he said. “That’s what they do.”

Prioritizing that is a key, Groce said.

“Our execution on that end has to get better,” he said. “Our guys have to care more about that end than they do about whether their shot is going in on the other end, which is very challenging for young players.”

What is the reason behind the shortcomings on the road?

“I think it’s just lack of concentration at some points in the game,” Ivey said. “We can’t put a full 40 minutes together.”

Groce admits that in recent games there have been mitigating circumstances — the loss of big men Emmanuel Olojakpoke and Jaden Sayles — and the shuffling of lineups to compensate for that may be an issue.

“It’s not track and field where I just put my head down and run a 100-meter dash,” he said. “There’s synchronization involved, plus a ball and an offense with five guys.”

Still, although there’s a measure of responsibility Groce and his coaching staff try to bear, they’re not the ones out on the court.

“Until we get those two areas [defense, rebounding] addressed, on the road, if we expect a different outcome then that’s the definition of insanity,” he said.

Ivey said he knows that’s on him and his teammates.

“Everybody needs to step up defensively because everyone got something they need to work on, not just one individual person,” he said when asked who needs to lead in improving the situation.

Injury update

Forward Jaden Sayles remains out for the game at Ball State with a wrist injury, which will be re-evaluated next week.

George M. Thomas can be reached at gmthomas@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ.