CLEVELAND — In two seasons as University of Akron men’s basketball coach, John Groce has made relentless defense the Zips’ calling card.
But the offense remains a work in progress, with “progress” being an anomaly.
UA’s 82-46 loss to top-seeded and 18th-ranked Buffalo on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena showed how far the Zips have to go. UA hit a season-low 23.7 percent from the field, including 16.7 percent in the first half, as it ended with a 17-16 record.
The Bulls are the prohibitive tournament favorite and could make the NCAA field even if they don’t win Saturday’s championship game. Buffalo has participated in March Madness in three of the past four years, with Kent State earning the automatic bid in 2017.
On Thursday, coach Nate Oats said the Bulls' defense for 40 minutes was the best it has been all season. But that’s not the only reason the Zips hit just four field goals in the first half and 14 for the game. Groce’s shooters let him down all season.
In finishing 14-18 last season, the Zips shot .435 from the field and .358 from 3-point range. Although only two of the Zips’ top five scorers returned, this season UA took a step back, making .409 and .320, respectively.
“Our offense was just unfortunately anemic,” Groce said of the performance against Buffalo. “Low assists numbers , low field goal numbers, low percentage shooting numbers. Give Buffalo a lot of credit for that.”
Fortunately for UA, the MAC’s online media guide doesn’t list tournament records for the fewest points in a half or game.
The Zips entered Thursday ranked 11th in the league in scoring offense (69.5 points per game), last in field goal percentage (.415) and eighth in 3-point percentage (.323). But a roster with only one senior, guard Jimond Ivey, presents a dilemma in what Groce can do to upgrade, as he desperately must, with presumably few defections.
Groce may have thought he had the firepower in sophomore Loren Cristian Jackson, a transfer from Long Beach State, junior Daniel Utomi, who shot 45 percent last season, and junior Channel Banks, a national junior college All-America at Sheridan College (Wyoming).
But as did many of the Zips, those three regressed — Utomi shot .403 this season, Jackson .345 and Banks .405. Jackson’s percentage was a major drop from his .437 in 2016-17 at Long Beach State; Banks’ UA bio lists him as a .490 percent shooter at Sheridan.
“We’ve just got to be better. Our leadership has got to be better, and that’s on me,” Jackson said.
“It's the offseason now. It’s time to put together what we didn’t have this year and bring it next year,” Banks said.
Groce wouldn’t let Jackson take the blame for the offense’s woes this season.
“I appreciate Cristian saying, ‘It’s on me’ — that’s probably what your quarterback and point guard should say. But it’s really not; it’s on everybody,” Groce said. “We’ve all got to figure out a way to help that end of the floor without sacrificing what we’ve built defensively.
“We don’t turn the ball over. We make free throws. We’ve got to execute a little bit better, got to make shots a little bit better, gotta continue to make sure what we’re doing fits our players.”
It’s possible that the effort the Zips spend on defense affects their offense, but Groce said he believes better depth next season can help.
“It does take a great deal of effort, concentration and focus to play defense like we have the majority of the year that consistently,” said Groce, whose Zips ranked 17th in the nation in scoring defense entering Thursday. “But I’m one of those guys who believes you can do both. I’ve seen both done before. We’ve got to have a roster of guys that believe that and we’ve got to get better offensively.
“We’ve come a long, long way. We’ve got to figure out how to get over that hump. The last thing we want to do is sacrifice where we’re at defensively right now. That obviously has been a real calling card for us.”
Adding to the urgency is that it’s hard to sell tickets for a team that struggles to score. UA can’t allow its loyal fan base built over Keith Dambrot’s 13 seasons to continue to desert. Kent State drew a bigger crowd for the rivalry game against UA at the M.A.C. Center (6,168 in an arena that holds 6,327) than UA did at Rhodes Arena (4,289, holds 5,500).
A bad day against Buffalo is one thing. But Groce must find answers for a team that can’t shoot straight if he’s going to challenge the Bulls and restore UA’s program to the level of prominence it enjoyed not that long ago.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.