A key difference between last year's University of Akron men’s basketball team and this year’s team is that one word — team.
When the Zips play in sync offensively, they can be very dangerous. When they haven’t, they’re inconsistent. Their 3-3 Mid-American Conference record (11-8 overall) is evidence of that.
“I think our biggest opportunity or highest ceiling is on the offensive end right now,” Zips coach John Groce said. “We have to get better there.”
To succeed, though, they need either guard Jimond Ivey or forward Daniel Utomi in the flow of the game offensively. That will be the case at 5 p.m. Saturday when they play Northern Illinois at Rhodes Arena.
When the two teams met on Jan. 12 in DeKalb, Ill., Ivey and Utomi combined for 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting in the Zips' 73-56 loss. Ivey has played more consistently since that game, but Utomi has struggled offensively throughout the conference schedule.
In MAC games, Utomi is shooting 29 percent (20-of-69) from the floor, including 24 percent (11-of-46) from beyond the 3-point arc. For someone who came into the season as a 40 percent career shooter from deep, that has to be a bitter pill to swallow. All of his problems, which include averaging 9.3 points in MAC games — nearly five points off his season mark — culminated with an 0-for-9 performance in the Zips' 70-67 win over Central Michigan Tuesday night.
As the Zips’ leading scorer, Utomi is drawing plenty of attention, but he isn’t necessarily taking bad shots even with the added defensive scrutiny. He’s simply dealing with a slump, which every shooter endures during the course of the season.
In Utomi’s case, it’s fair to wonder whether he’s injured. Despite not wanting to talk about it, he is aware of the issue. After Tuesday’s win, he immediately went back out to the court to work on his shooting, Groce said in his postgame news conference.
“That should tell you something about him,” Groce said. “He doesn’t like to go 0-fer. He obviously had some great looks and I’m really comfortable with him shooting the ball. ... There’s very few players I’ve coached in my career that put in more unrequired work than Dan Utomi.”
Even if he’s not making shots, Utomi’s presence has value because teams have to pay attention to him. But when he is struggling offensively, the Zips need someone else to step up and fill the scoring void. Against the Chippewas, guard Tyler Cheese answered the call, scoring 20 points on 8-of-17 shooting and grabbing 12 rebounds.
Groce said he won’t be giving up on UA’s best offensive weapon anytime soon.
“He’s going to play,” Groce said of Utomi. “As long as he plays hard like he did [Tuesday], I thought he helped us defensively. I thought he helped us on the glass. It was the best offensive rebound pursuit game that he had. I thought he defended well.”
And Groce is prepared to wait for the slump to eventually be busted.
“[Utomi] did not make shots [Tuesday]. He had some good ones. I’m really comfortable with him taking those,” Groce said. “In fact, if he didn’t take them again, I’d be really disappointed.
"... So I’m going down with him; I’m living with him. He misses open shots, he can keep taking a bunch more. I’ll play the odds on that one.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.