When I spoke to Keith Dambrot last week, when his team was still riding the nation's longest winning streak (then at 19 games), the coach was relaxed.
There was no need to stump for his Zips' case for an at-large bid. A handful of games to go, after all, and Dambrot is not the type of guy to hand out flyers on why his group should be in the NCAAs. He doesn't shill -- would rather have the resume and the film do the talking. He said the team wasn't feeling pressure, that the group was finally matured and looking like it could be the best team he's ever had. But that's not the case yet. Dambrot insists the 2006-07 team that went 26-7 but fell in the MAC title game is the best he's ever coached.
This one will need to best that club by reaching the NCAA tournament in order to supplant it.
That became less of a sure thing over the weekend when the Zips fell on the road to Buffalo, their first loss in 2013 and in the MAC. It ended the longest winning streak for Akron since 1959, when the Zips won 21 in a row. The 81-67 result was its fifth loss of the season, and probably its worst. The only other similar outcome in point differential came in the game shown above, when Creighton kicked around Akron back in early December (77-61). But Creighton is a lot better than Buffalo.
Reason for concern? Nah. Dambrot's team has already clinched a MAC title and it will be berthed into the semifinals of the league tourney. Ohio might be a closer second, but Akron has proven to be the MAC's best. The loss to Buffalo was also the first Akron has suffered while being at full strength; the team dealt with injuries through the first month of the season. If you want a measure of this team's strength, consider its ability to come back, and I'm not just talking about from broken bones and sprained ligaments.
-- It had a 19-4 run against Ohio last week to force overtime and win 88-81.
-- The Zips were down 11 at Kent State at halftime on Jan. 19. Won that game 71-67.
-- They trailed by 20 in the first half against Buffalo in the first meeting between the teams, back on Jan. 26. That ended Akron 68, Buffalo 64. There have been a few other cases of come-from-behind wins this year. It might end up being a microcosm for the NCAA tournament berth, if that comes to be.
"First and foremost, we're always confident," Dambrot said. "We stress with our guys to play loose. The rankings, that doesn't really matter. One thing I've noticed, as a 54-year-old coach now, they don't view it like you do it. They go day by day, moment by moment, and they really wanna win. Mid-majors don't get much publicity."
Dambrot spoke more to that maturity. Akron doesn't play with much of a chip. It didn't get too high during the streak, so having it come to an end wasn't a dramatic turn of events.
This group is built like a major-conference team. Zeke Marshall has finally rounded out into the NBA-prospect big man that he is. The highest-recruited player in MAC history had a reputation for being soft the past three years. Now he's a complete player, one who can guard two-guards 18 feet from the hoop -- but also has touch and jump hooks in his arsenal. There's now a mid-range game paired with his top-10 block and true shooting rate. Dambrot says Marshall is "two years from being really great," and the coach should know. Remember, Dambrot was LeBron James' high school coach; James is why Dambrot has the Akron job (something Dambrot openly admits.)
Combine him with bulldog point guard Alex Abreu, and Akron has got an inside-out force -- and goes 11 deep, arguably the most fluid roster in hoops. It's tough to believe we've seen the last from Akron.
"We're a bull in a china shop sometimes on offense. Sometimes we're slopping it around like the old Huggins teams where we just shoot and rebound," Dambrot said. "But we built this program on defense, and now it's the best rebounding team we've ever had."
The lack of huge wins -- Middle Tennessee State and Princeton could be their only wins over tourney teams, and those two squads are no sure thing for the bracket -- could choke up the Zips' chances. The winning streak was huge, but it might have needed to be bigger. Buffalo was a harmful, heavy loss, even if the team didn't take it badly. It seems certain that another loss prior to the MAC title game will again kick out Akron, which has made two tournaments the past four years.
If this really is the best Akron team under Dambrot, there is no more perfect scenario to prove it.
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