The University of Akron men’s basketball team held a meeting a few weeks ago to plan how to get through the Mid-American Conference season successfully and with momentum heading into the yearly tournament in Cleveland.
One result of that meeting has been on full display in the past couple of games.
With UA (14-9, 6-4) in need of every point and rebound, guard Tyler Cheese has been at the forefront ever since his teammates told him to play more aggressively. And the Zips — coming off a 72-53 victory Friday over rival Kent State — need that to continue if they are to avoid a letdown Tuesday night against 25th-ranked Buffalo (20-3, 8-2) at Rhodes Arena.
After consistently scoring in or near double digits most of the season, in the past two games Cheese has done for the Zips what guard Jimond Ivey and forward Daniel Utomi have been able to do at times this season and last — put the team on his shoulders.
After a lackluster first half dropped the Zips into a hole against Toledo on Feb. 5, the junior college transfer exploded for most of his 19 points in the second half in what became a 63-52 loss. Cheese followed that up by playing aggressively from the start against the Golden Flashes en route to 15 points.
“I think it’s experience and familiarity,” coach John Groce said after Tuesday’s practice about Cheese's growth. “I always thought with a newcomer it took a semester to figure it out, and I think he has really started to figure it out on both ends of the floor.”
Groce said all players new to the program have one primary job to begin their UA careers — learn how to fit. Everything else comes next, including learning the defense and how to contribute on that end of the floor. Additionally he expects them to protect the ball while being aggressive.
Cheese confessed that there was an adjustment going from the JUCO level to Division I basketball and, for him, not being the go-to guy. However, he recently has shown he has little problem leading the way. Some of that is because he's making shots he didn’t make earlier in the season, although he’s now looking more for his shot.
“It’s a mixture of both,” he said. “I had been taking the same amount of shots, but lately I’ve been taking more and I have been making more, too.”
Groce said he appreciates the effort.
“Tyler sees things, anticipates things,” he said. “Has a really good IQ and feel for the game, so he’s always had that and he’s always had the ability to score and pass.”
The latter helps the Zips offense. Cheese has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in conference play. He, point guard Loren Cristian Jackson and the rest of the starting lineup finally look comfortable playing together. That’s even more important for him and Jackson, given they share backcourt duties and possess skills that complement one another.
“One is sleek, ridiculously fast and a little bit smaller and the other [has] great size,” Groce said. “They really balance each other well. Part of that was intentional.”
Groce said he trusts the duo without reservation. The Zips rank fourth in MAC games in turnover margin with plus-2 per game, and ball security is an aspect of the game at which a team needs to start peaking as the season goes on. Cheese is well aware of some of the others.
“We need to continue doing what we’ve been doing,” he said. “We’ve been pushing the ball in transition, me and Cristian, our wings have been running, so that allows us to get more open shots and when we get stops we need to start having fun in transition.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.