The Buchtelite

Men’s Basketball Regular Season Comes to a Close

Perseverance and home-court advantage characterize the challenging 2018 season for the Akron basketball team.

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Men’s Basketball Regular Season Comes to a Close

No. 22, Emmanuel Olojakpoke, slams home a dunk on Dec. 9 against Appalachian State, a little over a month before undergoing successful open-heart surgery. (Photo courtesy of Zips Men's Basketball)

No. 22, Emmanuel Olojakpoke, slams home a dunk on Dec. 9 against Appalachian State, a little over a month before undergoing successful open-heart surgery. (Photo courtesy of Zips Men's Basketball)

No. 22, Emmanuel Olojakpoke, slams home a dunk on Dec. 9 against Appalachian State, a little over a month before undergoing successful open-heart surgery. (Photo courtesy of Zips Men's Basketball)

No. 22, Emmanuel Olojakpoke, slams home a dunk on Dec. 9 against Appalachian State, a little over a month before undergoing successful open-heart surgery. (Photo courtesy of Zips Men's Basketball)

By A.J. Fagerlin, Sports Contributor

Expectations were certainly not at an all-time high for the Akron Zips coming into this 2018 basketball season. After the departure of legendary head coach Keith Dambrot and many key players from recent years, Akron was expected to have somewhat of an off year for a program that has been successful for so long.

Under Dambrot, the Zips made nine trips to the MAC Finals in his 13 seasons. Over the past two seasons, Akron posted an impressive 53-18 combined record while winning the MAC regular season title each season. So when Dambrot left Akron to go to Duquesne, many expected the Zips and new head coach John Groce to fall well short of the recent standard.

After losing six of their ten leading scorers from last season to graduation or via transfer following the coaching change, the Zips had to turn to some new faces to try to stay afloat in the MAC this season. And with many players planning to transfer to Akron from other schools being required to take a year off from playing, Groce and his Zips really had their work cut out for them.

The lone returning starter from last season is forward Jimond Ivey. After averaging 10 points and nearly six rebounds per game a season ago, Ivey has become an even more viable scoring option, totaling nearly 14 points per contest in 2018. Arguably the most improved Zip from a year ago is forward Daniel Utomi. As a role player last season, Utomi averaged just 4.8 points and 1.2 rebounds per game. This season, Utomi has emerged as a leader for the team, leading the Zips squad averaging 16 points and 5.5 rebounds.

Also returning to action for Akron this season was Emmanuel Olojakpoke. From the very beginning of the 2018 season, Olojakpoke established himself as one of the best rim protectors in the conference. Through 15 games played, Olojakpoke swatted an impressive team-best of 25 shots. But then, Emmanuel and the Zips received some very bad news. In early January, E-Man (as he is referred to by the team) had a successful open-heart surgery causing him to miss the remainder of the 2018 campaign.

Through all of this adversity, the Zips have managed to silence many doubters and hold their own on the court. Particularly at their home court of James A. Rhodes Arena. Akron is 11-3 at home on the season. Sitting at 12-15 overall on the season and 5-10 in MAC play, all but one of the Zips’ wins and conference wins have come right here in Akron.

Led by guard Malcolm Duvivier, Akron’s group of newcomers have had a significant impact on the team’s performance this year. Duvivier, a graduate transfer from Oregon State, has started every game for the Zips, ranking second on the team in both points and assists. New faces Eric Parrish, Virshon Cotton, Torrey Patton, Jaden Sayles, Mark Kostelac, and Lucas Smith have each appeared in at least 16 games this season, providing the new-look Zips with valuable depth across their lineup.

Although the last few regular season matchups will ultimately decide the final seedings for the MAC Tournament, it appears as though the Zips will be somewhere between nine and twelve. Akron is currently tied with Ohio and Northern Illinois at 5-10 in the conference, and just a half-game ahead of Bowling Green in the MAC standings.

The Zips have already silenced many naysayers that expected a complete collapse this season. They have overcome tough times on and off the court to be in a position to make some noise in the MAC Tournament that begins on March 5 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. No matter your seed going into the tournament, if you get hot at the right time, you are capable of shocking the world and capturing that NCAA Tournament bid. Something that has eluded Akron recently despite entering the tournament as the one-seed.

It may not be what many are used to seeing on the court from the Akron Zips, but this year’s team has had to adopt a different mentality. After being top dogs for so long, the Zips are now underdogs. And these Akron mutts will battle as hard as they can to prove to themselves and to everyone else that they still have what it takes to be a top team in the MAC.

Akron has two remaining home games scheduled for James A. Rhodes Arena, including a battle against cross-town rival Kent State in the Crystal Clinic Wagon Wheel Challenge on Friday, March 2 at 7 pm. Tickets for home games, as well as the MAC Tournament, are on sale now. For ticket information visit www.gozips.com and www.GetSomeMACtion.com.

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