Anyone who thinks he has a handle on what to expect from the University of Akron men’s basketball team this season is about to have that assessment tested.
In his second year as Zips coach, John Groce has pressed the reset button in some respects. Gone are several players who were expected to contribute significantly over the course of their careers, and in their place, Groce has refreshed the roster with six newcomers.
The proving ground begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday, when UA tips off its season against Cedarville at Rhodes Arena.
For Groce, it’s like starting over — and he said he likes that fact. It provides the opportunity to work on things he views as essential to success. In the Zips' case, that means defense after UA ranked ninth in the Mid-American Conference in allowing 46 percent shooting en route to a 14-18 record last season.
“Where we were defensively last year is not good enough to get us where we want to go as we build our program, so we really focused on that side of the ball,” Groce said during a recent news conference. “I do think we've gotten better, but we have a long way to go.”
And Groce is looking to get there courtesy of some of those new players, including center Deng Riak, a 6-foot-10, 225-pounder who joins medically cleared Emmanuel Olojakpoke in the frontcourt. As a transfer, Riak sat out last season but is eligible to play this year and will add some much needed size to the Zips' lineup.
After inexperience and injury decimated the frontcourt last year as MAC play began, Groce was forced to use Daniel Utomi and Jimond Ivey in those roles depending upon what matchups dictated.
With Jayden Sayles (6-9, 235) and Olojakpoke now healthy and joined by Deng, that is shored up. More important, it frees up Utomi and Ivey to play on the wing, where they are most effective as scorers. The two combined for more than 30 points per game last year.
That being the case, there has to be some sense of relief for them.
“It doesn't really matter to me. I just do what the team needs me to do and I'm a competitor,” Utomi said. “Whatever coach wants me to do, I’m going to do it.”
Ultimately, however, success for the Zips will come down to intangibles.
“We're bigger. We're more athletic. We're more skilled. We're deeper,” Groce said. “Some of those things can get you in the ballpark, as I've told them, but it's all those intangible areas we're developing right now that make a team. Those are the things we're working on very diligently so we can max out our potential.”
Another intangible is chemistry. That was a problem to some degree last year, because some tension beyond the norm existed on the team. Ivey said there’s been a change.
“I think it's way better this year,” he said. “The guys on our team listen — returners and newcomers — we all listen to each other. We all got good things to say and we all appreciate everything each other’s got to say.”
The Zips women’s basketball team, which finished 9-21 under coach Jodi Kest last season, is now being led by former assistant Melissa Jackson. Kest retired last spring and Jackson, who served as Kest’s associate head coach for six seasons and has been with the UA program for 10 years, was elevated to the top spot. She promised to bring a more free-flowing style of play to the Zips, who play an exhibition home game at 7 p.m. Thursday against Rochester College.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.