Game On 2007-2008 Basketball Preview

“The University of Akron men’s basketball team opens the 2007 regular season in the first round of the BP Top of the World Classic against South Carolina Upstate in Fairbanks, Alaska Friday night. At tip-off, 251 days will have elapsed since the Zips’ 2006 season came to a screeching halt last March.”

The University of Akron men’s basketball team opens the 2007 regular season in the first round of the BP Top of the World Classic against South Carolina Upstate in Fairbanks, Alaska Friday night.

At tip-off, 251 days will have elapsed since the Zips’ 2006 season came to a screeching halt last March.

Not a day goes by that returning members on this year’s squad don’t remember Doug Penno’s three-pointer at the buzzer to win the Mid-American Conference Championship securing the MAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for Miami University.

Many of the players turned the disappointing end to the 2006 season into a positive start to 2007 by working tirelessly in the weight room and on the court during the offseason.

Head coach Keith Dambrot said that the team responded in the right way to the adversity, and that the coaching staff has pushed the players to continue to improve since the end of last season.

Our guys have done the right things in the spring, summer and fall, Dambrot said. We’ve probably pushed this team harder than we’ve ever pushed a team. Kids are pretty resilient. They’ve kind of let last year go, but they want to do well.

Preseason All-MAC selection senior forward Jeremiah Wood said that he is excited to get back on the basketball court and start another season, and is looking forward to building off of the success of last year’s MAC East Division Championship.

I’m just ready to be back out there, he said. Last year’s over. We had a good year. Now, it’s time to make this year a better year.

Preseason All-MAC senior guards Nick Dials and Cedrick Middleton return with Wood as the team’s most experienced players. Senior Quade Milum will be counted on as an everyday starter for the first time in his career, replacing 2006 MAC Player of the Year Romeo Travis.

The biggest question mark coming into the season for the Zips was who would become UA’s starting point guard, after Dru Joyce completed his eligibility last season. Joyce had been a fixture at the position for the past two seasons.

Dambrot said that before preseason practices began, the coaching staff had envisioned redshirt freshman Steve McNees and true freshman Ronnie Steward splitting time at the position while competing for minutes.

That plan had to be adjusted when Ronnie Steward suffered a hip injury in practice. Steward will miss the start of the season, and the exact date of his return is not yet known.

McNees has gotten the majority of the time as the team’s starting point guard in practice and in the Zips’ 79-55 exhibition win against Walsh University Nov. 8.

While admitting that McNees still has a lot to learn about UA’s system, Dambrot said that he is pleased with the progress of the young floor general.

He’s shown he can shoot the ball, he said. He’s shown he can handle the ball and pass it. He’s got some things he’s gotta get better at, but if you consider he’s a (redshirt) freshman, he’s done a really good job.

After the Zips posted a 26-7 record in 2006 and were not granted an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament or invited to participate in the National Invitational Tournament, some supporters of the program clamored for the Zips to travel and play high-major non-conference games at the start of each season in an attempt to raise the team’s RPI and better their chances of postseason play.

Dambrot, however, has decided to stick with his plan and only play non-conference road games in which the home team agrees to come play in Akron in a future season.

The Zips’ head coach said that he sees the method as the best way to build a consistently competitive program.

If you look at the history of our school since it has been Division I, we haven’t had very many winning seasons, Dambrot said. My job when I started this program was to build a program that could maintain over a long period of time.

My thing is if you play those high-majors on the road for money, you’re not gonna win, and if you’re not gonna win, you can’t develop your program.

Dambrot cited the fact that wins are an important factor in determining a team’s RPI, and reiterated that the MAC was simply not strong enough last season to enable the Zips to get a postseason invite.

Dambrot is fully aware that each decision he makes will be scrutinized and second-guessed, but said that he’s comfortable with the team’s scheduling practices.

I’ll look everybody in the eye, he said. My job is to build the program. There’s always going to be people that second-guess you and are skeptical, but I still think the way we did it was good. I think this year’s even better than last year.

Highlights from this year’s non-conference schedule include home contests against Temple and Wyoming, and road contests at Winthrop, Austin Peay and Dayton. The Zips’ eight non-conference home games this season are the most UA has had in Dambrot’s tenure as coach.

Dials said that while the team’s non-conference schedule may lack big-name appeal, it is comprised of quality opponents that will prepare the team well for MAC play.

I think our non-conference schedule is pretty tough, Dials said. You don’t have the big names like North Carolina, Louisville (and) Kentucky, but you’ve got solid teams that play well together.

The Zips’ spot-up shooter also said that he appreciates the increase in home games during his final collegiate season.

Being a senior closing a career, you want to play as many home games as you can, Dials said. That’s one thing that I like and will appreciate after the season.

The Zips were picked to finish fourth in the MAC East in a MAC News Media poll released Oct. 15, but were ranked 14th in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Preseason Top 25, released Oct. 21.