John Groce has completed the hardest sell in basketball.
In his second season as coach at the University of Akron, he has convinced the Zips that their defense drives their offense.
Now when they enter the locker room after the game and Groce says, “Heckuva win,” he says the first thing they ask is, “What’s our defensive efficiency rating?”
Groce didn’t have the number kept by graduate assistant Sean Carroll at the ready on Friday night. But after a 72-53 nationally televised victory over rival Kent State at Rhodes Arena, there’s no doubt the Zips were pleased with Carroll’s calculation.
UA held KSU to its lowest point total, field-goal percentage (.328), and 3-point percentage (.160) of the season. Golden Flashes leading scorer Jaylin Walker went 4-for-19 from the field, 0-for-10 from beyond the arc.
For much of the night, Kent State coach Rob Senderoff stood near his bench with his arms folded. If he was wondering when the Flashes would solve the Zips’ defense and make a shot, he may have laid awake in the same pose for hours when he got home.
“We played poorly, I’m sure they had something to do with it,” Senderoff said. As for Walker’s struggles, he added, “I just think he struggled. I don’t know what they did except guard him.”
It might have been closer if not for UA’s uncharacteristic 3-point explosion during a 21-2 second-half run. But the result was proof that the Zips have thrown more glamorous pursuits aside and accepted that their calling card is defense.
What’s stunning is how far the Zips have come, and how fast.
Groce pointed out that UA finished 274th in the country and last in the Mid-American Conference in defense last season. Those numbers were likely his beloved defensive efficiency ratings.
“Last,” he said, repeating it as if it remains incomprehensible. “The guys heard about it all offseason and they heard about it and they heard about it. Obviously, personnel changes are part of that. But as of yesterday morning, we were 30th in the country. That’s a 244-spot improvement in less than a year. You don’t do that unless these guys buy in and play as hard as they’re playing on that end. That’s what’s giving us a chance every night.”
As of Friday morning, UA stood 14th in the nation and first in the Mid-American Conference in scoring defense, allowing 62.4 points per game. Opponents were shooting .406 from the floor (41st in the nation) and .311 (48th) on 3-pointers.
Sophomore guard Loren Christian Jackson, a transfer from Long Beach State, said the transformation didn’t begin in camp. It began last March 8, as the Zips ended a 14-18 season with a 67-58 loss to Eastern Michigan in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena.
“Coach brought us into the locker room against Eastern Michigan. He said, ‘You guys feel this one.’ I didn’t even play and I don’t want to feel that way anymore,” said Jackson, who sat out last season under the NCAA transfer rules. “From the first day of camp, we focused on locking in, diving on loose balls, talking as well as we can and just following coach’s lead and that’s how we got better.”
All of that requires putting aside individual goals for bruises and scraped knees and a tip that results in a teammate’s steal that gives the tipper no credit in the box score. It requires communication and leadership and camaraderie.
“It’s our guys, they’ve really bought into how we defend, the scheme that we play, how we do scouting,” Groce said. “It takes great sacrifice to play really hard and play really together in that way for 40 minutes.”
The Zips (14-9, 6-4 in the MAC) can captivate those who love worst-to-first scenarios, but there are difficult challenges ahead. In Tuesday’s home game against 23rd-ranked Buffalo, two games against Bowling Green, the regular-season finale at Kent State on March 8, the Zips’ inconsistent offense could prove to be their downfall.
But there will be no doubt where their focus will be.
“On defense, that’s where we’ve got to make our money,” Jackson said. “If we get stops on defense, our shots are going to fall, then that’s how we win games.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.