Any success the University of Akron basketball team has Saturday against Ball State in Muncie, Ind., won’t come easily, and for myriad reasons.
But should the Zips have success, it will likely depend on big men Pat Forsythe, Isaiah Johnson and Kwan Cheatham Jr.
The Cardinals (13-7, 4-3 Mid-American Conference) are a solid defensive team, ranking second in scoring defense, third in defensive field-goal percentage and second in 3-point defensive percentage in the MAC.
Scoring down low should be a primary goal for the Zips (16-4, 5-2), and with the aforementioned trio combining for 34 points against Northern Illinois earlier this week, UA is riding some momentum.
“What we have to do is use our size to our advantage,” UA coach Keith Dambrot said after Friday morning’s practice. “But if Dawg [Johnson] doesn’t play, that negates our advantage.”
Johnson hasn’t practiced the past two days and was one of four Zips — Jake Kretzer, Reggie McAdams and Aaron Jackson are the others — who didn’t practice. With the exception of Jackson, who has a separated shoulder, Dambrot said he is expecting them to play.
“When you’re as big as [Johnson] is, when you get a little leg injury it’s a lot bigger deal than you think,” Dambrot said, “even if it’s just a little nagger.”
The hope, however, is that Cheatham can continue what he started Tuesday against the Huskies when he made five 3-point shots in a 76-66 victory. The junior forward has been inconsistent this season.
Dambrot said that Cheatham had allowed his inconsistencies to get him down, but has started spending extra time in the gym to correct his issues. An 18-point effort is a good way to start.
“It’ll help him. I think anything helps him,” Dambrot said. “If he can have another good game and then another one, then all of a sudden you’ve got something.”
The Zips head to Muncie (1 p.m. start) on a two-game road losing streak. It’s certainly nothing to panic about at this point of the season, but they cannot allow that to morph into an ongoing issue.
For Dambrot and the Zips, that begins with the Cardinals.
“We have to play great defense. That’s first and foremost,” Dambrot said.
Although the Zips have struggled on dribble-drive defense, they’ve been improving. In their win over Miami, the effort showed. Against the Huskies, that effort translated to results. UA gave up only 24 points in the paint for the game. It helps that Ball State likes to shoot 3-pointers, an area where the Zips are strong defensively, ranking No. 1 in the country.
The Zips like to shoot 3-pointers, too.
“We just have to make open shots. I don’t think they do anything special defensively at the 3-line,” Dambrot said. “I think they’re good. I think they recover well, but I don’t think they’re anything different than what we’ve seen.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ.