by Ryan Isley
When it comes to this year’s Akron Zips, Chumbawamba may have said it best with “I get knocked down, but I get up again; you’re never gonna keep me down.”
After a three-game losing streak, the Zips have bounced right back off the mat to win three games in a row, which resulted in them securing the No.4 seed in the Mid-American Conference Tournament and a bye into the quarterfinals. They will take the floor on Thursday evening in Cleveland at Quicken Loans Arena against one of the teams who beat them in that streak, when they take on the Ohio for the third time this season.
The Bobcats earned their berth into the quarterfinals with a 63-55 win over Miami on Wednesday in a game that featured the last two teams to beat Akron this season.
The two teams have played twice this season with Akron taking the first game in a thrilling two-overtime 83-80 win in Athens and Ohio returning the favor with a complete manhandling of the Zips 66-50 in Akron just a few weeks ago.
One of the biggest stories during that three-game losing streak for Akron was their depth, as the team had been depleted by injury, illness and suspension.
Jake Kretzer was out after suffering a concussion against Buffalo on February 19, in the game prior to Ohio (first game of the losing streak), Reggie McAdams was out after being diagnosed with mononucleosis before the win against Northern Illinois on February 15 and Nick Harney missed two of the three losses while serving the last of a four-game suspension and returned in the loss to Miami.
Those three players had combined to score 30 points in the win at Ohio, leaving a big hole for the Zips.
The loss of Kretzer, McAdams and Harney only added to the losses the Zips had coming into the season, making this a completely different basketball team than took the floor for Dambrot last season.
“We lost (Alex) Abreu, (Zeke) Marshall, (Chauncey) Gilliam, (Brian) Walsh, Harney, McAdams and Kretzer. That’s (seven) of our top (eight) guys from last year,” Dambrot said, while also acknowledging that Akron added Quincy Diggs back this season. “The only one who was in the rotation last year was (Demetrius) Treadwell.”
But as he usually does, Dambrot tried to find the silver lining in the situation, as Akron was able to use those games to get other players ready for the time that really matters – the MAC Tournament.
“We were 9-3 and we lost Harney, Jake and McAdams and we weren’t any good,” Dambrot said. “But when you can use those younger kids in smaller intervals, now you have built your team to the point that now you become a force if those guys can come back and play at a reasonably high level. We’ve improved Nyles (Evans), we’ve improved Deji (Ibitayo), we’ve improved Big Dog (Isaiah Johnson), we’ve improved Kwan Cheatham, Melo (Carmelo Betancourt) has gotten better.”
Akron has reacquired the services of Harney and McAdams over the past couple of weeks, while Kretzer is questionable for Thursday’s game against Ohio after missing the past five contests.
Even as the role players have improved, Dambrot knows that his team will only go as far as his top three players take them. When Treadwell, Diggs and Harney all score in double figures in conference games this season, the Zips are 5-1, and are 7-2 when all three score at least eight points each.
“When Harney, Q and Treadwell play well, we can play with anybody in this league. And when they don’t, we have issues. It’s pretty evident,” Dambrot said. “Take Q out of the equation, even. Tree’s gonna do what he does every night and when Harney (plays well), normally we have a good chance to win. He was going through that stretch before the suspension where he was playing well and we were playing well and that derailed us.”
In the four games leading up to the suspension, Harney had averaged 13 points and five rebounds per game in 25.3 minutes per game and had scored in double digits in all four, the only time this season he has had four straight games of at least 10 points.
The one word that has floated around in the past week about this team and the experiences they have endured this season is humbled. Dambrot first mentioned it after their win against Buffalo last Tuesday night, a game Akron entered with an 18-11 record.
“Tree and I have talked a lot and this has been a humbling experience for us,” Dambrot said. “It’s kind of funny – when you have your expectation level set where we have it, when you’re 18-11 you feel humbled. There are a lot of people who would love to be 18-11 but for us we are humbled that we were 10-6 in the league and we felt miserable, where most people would be happy with that.”
The reason Akron may have felt miserable and humbled is that for each of the eight seasons leading up to this one, the Zips had won at least 20 games – a mark they reached for the ninth consecutive season with their 58-54 win over Kent State last Friday. In fact, Akron has put at least 22 marks in the win column in each of the last eight seasons before this one, one of only six teams around the country to do so. The company they keep in that group is quite impressive, as only Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Ohio State and Pittsburgh could claim that distinction. Two wins in the MAC Tournament – the game against Ohio and then the semifinals – would give them yet another 22+ win season.
Treadwell – a First-Team All-MAC selection this season and last season’s MAC Tournament MVP – echoed his coach’s sentiments after that Kent State win, just three nights after Dambrot’s comments.
“Coach D and I have been talking a lot and this adversity has been real humbling because the last couple years came real easy for us during the regular season, winning back-to-back regular season championships,” Treadwell said. “For us to go through the struggles this year, it couldn’t have done anything but make us stronger as a team and open our eyes that we have to work a little bit harder.”
Now humbled and on the mend, the Zips hope the adversity they have fought through brings them a prize at the end – back-to-back MAC Tournament championships and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
If that happens, the slice of humble pie they have been served will be a taste they savor.
Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.