The University of Akron men’s basketball team has shown a flair for the dramatic in its past two games, losing them by a combined five points.
An extra bucket here or there and things are different and the Zips aren’t staring down a barrel for the rest of the season.
“I can't look [the media] in the eye and tell you we're not doing some things really, really well,” UA coach John Groce said after Friday morning’s practice. “We are. So, we have to find a way to try to control the controllables a little bit better.”
There’s no disputing UA’s dominance on defense. The Zips play defense well enough that they’ve been in every Mid-American Conference game they’ve played this year. They rank No. 1 in the conference in scoring defense and are in the top five of other statistical categories.
Their remaining big men, Emmanuel Olojakpoke and Deng Riak, play prominent roles in that success. As Olojakpoke continues to make his way back from heart surgery, the focus and minutes have been on Riak primarily.
Defensively, he’s delivered. Riak has 21 blocks in 23 games and averages nearly six rebounds per game. He’s one reason the Zips' interior defense has been so stout this season. Even with the team having lost two frontcourt players several weeks back, Riak said he hasn’t felt much in the way of pressure to up the offensive game.
“Regardless of who's there, I've been playing the same minutes, because I'm basically playing the same minutes that I have been,” he said after Friday’s practice.
He understands the role that Groce has given him.
“I've always told him and Manny that if we could get them to score 10 points or more collectively in that 40 minutes between the two of them and shoot 60 percent on dunks, layups and paint shots and then protect the rim and be our best defenders around the rim, then they're doing their jobs,” Groce said.
The Zips (14-12, 6-7) need a little bit more from the two, especially Riak, who gets opportunities but doesn’t always capitalize on them. Groce said the 6-foot-10, 225-pound center has an effective jump-shot range of 15 to 17 feet. But it’s the layups and dunks that present a problem. On more than a few occasions, Riak has shown an inability to finish at the rim, a frustrating situation.
“Obviously, we'd like it more if he could get a couple more baskets,” Groce said. “He's never going to be a primary scorer, but he needs to catch and finish better. Him and Manny need to be able to catch and finish.”
There sometimes has been another issue when Riak has been in the paint.
“There are times when he turns the ball over that he's a little soft with the ball and unassertive,” Groce said. “I'd like for him to be a little tougher with the ball. Other than that, he's played his role pretty well.”
If the Zips are to build momentum, beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday at home against Miami, they will need every bit of offense they can muster to complement their defensive efforts. The good thing is Riak is coachable and gets that. He calls his play this season “inconsistent,” but knows where the work needs to be done.
“Defense comes real natural to me, so it's not something I have to work on,” he said. “I just have to focus more on the offensive end to help my team where I can. I just have to be more physical around the paint, finishing.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.