It is a well-known sports cliché that “defense wins championships.”
In fact, that statement is less cliché and more accurate than not. Ask the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
So, if there’s any reason to believe the University of Akron men's basketball team has a chance to make a run in the Mid-American Conference Tournament — which begins for the Zips at 8 p.m. Monday against Miami at Rhodes Arena — it all rides on the defense, which is ranked 29th in the country, according to KenPom.com.
The winner will advance to play No. 1 seed Buffalo at noon Thursday in a quarterfinal game at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
There’s no opponent that will validate for the No. 8 Zips (16-15, 8-10) more than the No. 9 RedHawks (15-16, 7-11), who the Zips have played four times previously in the tournament, with each having won two games.
Consider the way the two regular-season games between the teams unfolded this season.
In Oxford on Jan. 19, the Zips allowed the RedHawks to shoot 45 percent in the second half to take control of a game the Zips should have won. That’s not an overwhelmingly bad defensive night, but given UA’s offensive struggles, the margin of error for this team remains slim and that day it resulted in a 68-61 loss.
Contrast that with the effort at Rhodes Arena on Feb. 23, when the Zips held Miami to 33 percent shooting en route to a dominant 70-58 win.
But UA coach John Groce wisely is not taking the RedHawks for granted despite the most recent outcome. With Miami featuring scorers Nike Sibande (15.8 points per game) and Dalonte Brown (11.7) and distributing point guard Darrian Ringo (4.9 assists, a nearly 2-to-1 assists-to-turnover ratio), it would be unwise to do so.
To their credit, it doesn’t sound as if the Zips will do that. Guard Tyler Cheese said he is well aware of the differences between the team’s two games against Miami this season.
“We defended,” he said, succinctly, of the second one.
“That has to show up and it has to show up with great effort,” Groce said Sunday of the team’s needed defensive effort before a team practice.
However, cohesion will be equally as important, Cheese said.
“When we're together as a team in games, we're really good,” he said.
Senior guard Jimond Ivey agreed.
“I’m not looking ahead. I'm not looking to the past,” he said. “[But] through ups and downs we have to stay together as a team and, then, just stay the course of the game.”
It also should be noted the Zips are 13-3 at home, so that represents an advantage even if the crowds have been mild mannered this season.
“It's a sense of relief. It would have been better if we had got a bye,” Ivey said. “Like I told these guys, we have to put it in perspective. Last year, we were playing a road game. To play at home is way better than that. We just have to look at it that way."
Ultimately, Groce said, it's only what happens on the court Monday that will matter.
“What happened two months ago and two weeks ago, you can take strategy from those from watching game film and picking up tendencies, but whichever team plays the best basketball tomorrow night is the one that's going to advance to Cleveland," he said. "And that, in my mind, is going to have very little to do with what happened in Game 1 or Game 2.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.