Cliché alert: On any given day, Team A can beat Team B and vice versa.

The relevancy comes in knowing the University of Akron men’s basketball team will face Mid-American Conference Tournament favorite Buffalo for the third time this season in the quarterfinals Thursday in Cleveland.

In other words, the Zips can beat the Bulls. They might have to play the perfect game to do so, but in light of recent events, it can happen.

“I thought the last time we played Buffalo, we really played one of our best games of the year for the first 35 minutes,” UA coach John Groce said. “Then they really stepped up and made some winning plays in the game. We didn’t make as many of those as they did and they beat us. So we have to find a way to get over the hump [today].”

There’s a means to that end.

UA has played ferocious defense for much of the season but their woes have come on offense.

It appears as if the Zips might have found their collective stroke at the right time of the year. In two of their past three games — both victories and including the tournament opener — they’ve shot better than 50 percent from the floor (58 percent against Bowling Green, 53 percent against Miami University).

“We’ve made shots obviously,” Groce said, “but our execution has gotten better here in the last month of the season.”

Forward Daniel Utomi, who has averaged 21 points per game in the Zips' past three games, agreed.

“I think we’re just playing team basketball,” he said. “It’s good the shots are finally knocking down, but it’s like coach said, it’s because we’re playing as [a team]. Everybody is just sharing the ball. Everybody is just doing what they’re supposed to do.”

But it’s always going to start with defense for Groce and the Zips, who rank No. 1 overall in the conference in defensive shooting percentage and in the Top 30 nationwide in defensive efficiency. The focus will be on limiting the Bulls in transition as much as possible.

“We have to be able to defend at that top-tier MAC level,” he said.

Groce said the Bulls have a tendency to get out on transition. The Bulls have scored 32 points off turnovers in the two games against UA.

“They’re so explosive in transition,” Groce said. “You let them get out and don’t get your defense set and it’s dunks, layups, 3s.”

It would be a big help if the Zips took better care of the ball. In the two games, the Zips turned the ball over 31 times. UA averages 11.8 turnovers per game.

“We have to do a little bit better job than we did in Game 1 and Game 2,” Groce said.

The Zips have not been the best rebounding team this season, ranking ninth in the conference. What has hurt them against the Bulls has been the inability to box out, Groce said. In two games, the Bulls have scored 30 second-chance points. That has to change, but more importantly the Zips need to give effort for the full game.

“They wore on us the first two games,” Groce said, “but at the very end of the game, we had some outpouring of offensive performance in both games. To be honest, if you don’t do it for a full 40, they’ll exploit you.”

 

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