The University of Akron men’s basketball team's Mid-American Conference game at Ball State on Saturday could very well determine which direction the team goes for the rest of the season.

According to coach John Groce after a 76-70 loss to Buffalo on Tuesday, the Zips did not do what they've done all season — play as a team — and they need to correct that before facing the Cardinals (13-11, 4-7).

"Hopefully, they’ve figured it out,” he said after a recent practice.

The process of learning one another and how each member of the team plays should be over at this point. Groce said he noticed that when the Zips (14-10, 6-5) play like a unit, they can be a good team.

“I reminded them of that — that there’s nothing more important than attitude, body language, team-ism, connection," he said. "And the relationship we have on the floor has to mirror our team off the court, and I think our team off the court is pretty close.”

Forward Daniel Utomi said it was a matter of some members being seriously competitive because they were playing against the nationally ranked Bulls.

“Sometimes, people forget how to win as a team,” he said, “so that’s when those problems occur.”

Groce decried the fact that his team played well enough to hang around with Buffalo and nothing more.

“We can play better than that and we will going forward,” he said. “For us, what we have to answer is if we’re interested enough to change some of those things in order to do it all the time.”

Bulls redux

One aspect of Tuesday’s game that was inescapable was the free-throw discrepancy. The Zips went to the line seven times in the game, while the Bulls attempted 26 free throws. Groce wanted to look at the game film before commenting on it. Ultimately, he placed blame for the Zips loss where it belonged.

“I thought those [officials] overall did a pretty good job," he said. "At the end of the game, obviously, I thought hand checks here and there could have been more equally distributed.

"But at the end of the day, what got us beat was a really good Buffalo team playing against our team that hung in there and did some physical things well, but I just don’t think our mental and emotional state was where it was needed to win a game like that.”

Moving pieces

It wasn’t difficult to notice that Utomi saw some time at the center spot against the Bulls, primarily out of necessity.

After losing two big men earlier in the season in activities unrelated to basketball, the Zips were already hurt depth-wise at those positions even before forward Jaden Sayles injured his right hand trying to cushion a fall during practice a couple of weeks ago.

“We have to adapt to the best that we can and make the concessions we feel like we need to make in order to be as competitive as we possibly can,” Groce said.

Joining the club

Utomi notched his career 1,000th point against the Bulls. He’s scored 1,012 points in 88 career college games.

“Obviously, it’s a good milestone to achieve, but I’m not a big stat guy,” he said. “It’s obviously great to score 1,000 points at the college level, but I’ve been doing this all my life, so it’s not really nothing big to me.”

George M. Thomas can be reached at gmthomas@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.