While many teams across the country look to begin the process of building towards an NCAA Tournament berth with trips outside of the country in the summer, not everyone has the same set of circumstances to deal with once the season begins. Such is life for schools in smaller conferences, who may have their NCAA Tournament hopes boil down to one weekend in March. One school on the road who could fall into that category is Akron, and Keith Dambrot's team was a prime example of the importance of the conference tournament.
Just 9-7 in MAC play heading into the tournament, the Zips won four games (two in overtime) to earn the league's automatic bid. Notre Dame ended Akron's season in the second round, but the final month of the season displayed the promise of what Akron could be in 2011-12. Conference tournament MVP Zeke Marshall was one of the players who stepped up in March, and Akron's trip to Canada was the next step in the maturation process for the Zips.
Coach Dambrot's team won all five of their games north of the border, ending the trip with an 80-76 win over Carleton University and outscored their opponents by an average margin of 24.2 points per game. But as it's been noted many times before, trips out of the country are just as much about player and team development as they are win/loss records.
Marshall (8.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg in '10-'11) is a key figure in that growth, and in talking with Coach Dambrot on Friday the junior 7-footer still has work to do. "He didn't play his best basketball, but the biggest thing for him will be to be more consistent offensively and as a whole," said Dambrot. While the Zips won't lack for depth in the frontcourt, it's safe to say that this is a big season for Marshall.
In addition to Marshall in the frontcourt is senior Nikola Cvetinovic, who missed out on the trip to play in the World University Games for his native Serbia. Cvetinovic was a Second Team All-MAC selection last season, and while he may not end up being a MAC Player of the Year possibility he's going to be a key factor for Akron.
"He's going to win a lot of games for us this season," remarked Dambrot on Cvetinovic. "He's a very versatile player who can pass, shoot and defend." Coach Dambrot also mentioned the senior's toughness as a plus.
The other returning starter is senior guard Brett McClanahan, who established career-bests in both points (10.0) and rebounds (3.6) per game last season. One of the better three-point shooters in the MAC, McClanahan will need to continue building towards being a more versatile player in his final campaign. The same goes for Quincy Diggs, who should benefit from having a year at Akron under his belt after transferring in from New Orleans.
"Everyone who's been here a long time has gotten better," said Dambrot about the player development at Akron. "Brett has become a better defender and can play either the two or three, while Quincy can be tough for opposing teams to keep from getting to the rim."
But if there's one returning player to watch for Akron this season, and who needed to assert himself in Canada, that would be sophomore point guard Alex Abreu. While Abreu did start 15 games last season, a lot more will be on his plate with Steve McNees and Darryl Roberts having graduated.
"It was a really important trip for Alex," said Dambrot. "He played a lot of minutes last year but had to lean on McNees at times. Leadership is where he needs to flex his muscles [this year]."
According to Coach Dambrot, Abreu performed well on the trip, finishing up with 15 points and eight assists in the win over Carleton. That's good news for the Zips heading into preseason workouts because in terms of primary ball-handlers Abreu may be the sole option right now.
Newcomers such as Nick Harney, Demetrius Treadwell, Brian Walsh (Xavier transfer) and Chauncey Gilliam (UMBC transfer) also performed well and should get better with more time in the Akron system.
"They lack a little system knowledge but they're all very gifted," noted Dambrot. All four will have ample opportunities to contribute this season, and they'll need to step forward if the Zips are to make another run at the NCAA Tournament.
For Akron, and the rest of the MAC for that matter, there's also the shift in conference tournament seeding. Instead of being seeded by divisions the conference will go to a 1 through 12 format similar to what the SEC decided to do. And in speaking with Coach Dambrot he seems to be in favor of the move.
"We [the MAC] have to do something to change us being a one-bid league," said Dambrot. He also noted that the league needs to make sure that 16 is the optimal number of conference games and not 18 in order to ensure accurate seeding.
What will the move do for Akron's hopes of repeating as conference tournament champion? That remains to be seen, but given the wild nature of the MAC Tournament (annually one of the most entertaining conference tournaments around) the seeding switch places even more emphasis on the regular season. And if their play in Canada were any kind of sign, Akron should be more than ready for all challengers.
Some Other Teams from BCS Non-AQ leagues on the road
- BYU: On-court life without Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery began in Greece for the Cougars, where they're currently 2-0 on their trip. The frontcourt, led by Charles Abouo, Noah Hartsock and wing Brock Zylstra, looks to be the strength of this team. UCLA transfer Matt Carlino, who did not make the trip, is eligible come December.
- Creighton: The Blue Jays are expected to be right there with defending MVC regular season champ Wichita State atop the preseason polls, and they're tuning up with games in the Bahamas. Sophomore forward Doug McDermott also played for Team USA, and the busy summer for him could pay off in the form of an MVC Player of the Year award.
- Fairfield: The Stags are currently in Italy playing, and they won their first game in impressive fashion. First-year head coach Sydney Johnson (from Princeton) has a team led by guard Derek Needham that will be one of the two favorites (along with Iona) to win the MAAC. They also welcome transfers Rakim Sanders (Boston College) and Desmond Wade (Houston).
- Hawaii: Year two of the Gib Arnold era at UH began with a 15-day trip to China and Japan, where they've played five games (with a 6th today). Guard Zane Johnson and big man Vander Joaquim are two of the key players heading into 2011-12, and the Warriors are talented enough to make a move up the WAC standings (they finished 5th last year).
- Murray State: New head coach Steve Prohm got some early work in with his team, and the Racers went 3-0 on their trip to Canada. Ivan Aska and Isaiah Canaan are two of the experienced players who will need to lead the way, and they're still going to be a factor in the OVC.
- Saint Louis: The Billikens have five games in Canada beginning on the 22nd, and the key for them will be that guard Kwamain Mitchell displays improved leadership qualities. If he can, SLU could make a move up the Atlantic 10 standings.
- Stony Brook: Steve Pikiell's Seawolves, who are in Paris after having gone through Dublin and London, were one win away from getting to the NCAA Tournament. And that was without Tommy Brenton, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. He and point guard Bryan Dougher make up one of the better tandems in America East.
- Wichita State: Just like Creighton the Shockers made a trip, heading down to Brazil where they went 3-2 in five games. While they do have to replace J.T. Durley in the frontcourt the Shockers are still a deep team led by senior Toure' Murry.