Lone senior Linhart looks to lead Zips in last home game

“Coming out of Gahanna Lincoln High School in 2005, Nate Linhart was a relative unknown in the world of college basketball recruiting. As a two-star recruit, the 6-foot-6, 200 pound small forward’s 17 points and nine rebounds per contest as a senior in the Ohio Capital Conference garnered little attention.”

Coming out of Gahanna Lincoln High School in 2005, Nate Linhart was a relative unknown in the world of college basketball recruiting. As a two-star recruit, the 6-foot-6, 200 pound small forward’s 17 points and nine rebounds per contest as a senior in the Ohio Capital Conference garnered little attention.

Linhart signed to play for the University of Akron men’s basketball team after talking to the team’s coaches and without making an official visit.

The only thing I knew about (the program) was there hadn’t been any recent success, Linhart said. I kind of wanted to pave my own path, make my own way and steer this program toward winning.

The newest member of the men’s basketball team came to campus the following fall with a plan to make a name for himself while simultaneously achieving his lofty goals for the program.

When I came in, I didn’t really know how I was going to fit in with the team, so I just tried to find one thing that I was good at and use that to get on the floor, Linhart said. My freshman year, it was rebounding and defense.

Linhart’s defense and hustle on the glass and floor not only earned him playing time, but also a regular spot in the starting lineup. The freshman started in 17 of his 32 games played, which were the most games played by a UA freshman at the time.

Four years later, the senior captain remains in the starting lineup because he’s made the attributes he demonstrated as a first-year player into the hallmarks of his game.

UA head coach Keith Dambrot said after UA fell to Bowling Green on Sunday that Linhart’s performance epitomized his career. Despite shooting only 3-of-9 from the field and 0-of-4 from behind the 3-point line, Linhart kept the Zips in the game until the final minute by diving for loose balls and making pivotal defensive stops.

I think this game really tells what he is, Dambrot said during his postgame news conference. He had a tough start, but he rallied himself. He has that ability to rally himself and make plays when it matters.

He’s the heart and soul of our team.

Despite being named to the Preseason All-Mid-American Conference Team, Linhart’s final collegiate season provided yet another opportunity to prove critics wrong.

With nine first-year players on the roster, the Zips were picked to finish fourth in the MAC East in the 2008-09 Mid-American Conference News Media Association Preseason Poll.

UA’s tilt with BGSU was for first place in the division. Even with the loss, the Zips can still claim one of the top four seeds in next week’s MAC Tournament and receive a first round bye.

Linhart said the team’s recent success is simply the latest in a series of outcomes that have defined his UA career.

I’ve kind of made a living of proving people wrong, he said. I was really not that highly recruited in high school. Akron had no history when I came here (and) look at where we are now.

Success often breeds more success and that appears to be happening with UA’s men’s basketball program. The Zips signed arguably their most heralded recruit in team history this fall in 7-foot, 218 pound Zeke Marshall. The McKeesport, Pa., product was ranked as the seventh-best center in the 2009 recruiting class.

Linhart said he takes pride in knowing he played an active role in transforming the image of Akron basketball in the eyes of today’s prospective recruits.

I think they’re pretty attuned and aware of Akron’s recent success and history, Linhart said. That’s kind of what I had in mind when I committed here and I’m really proud to be able to say that now.

The impending arrival of Marshall has had fans and prognosticators thinking about what lies ahead in the years to come for the Zips.

Linhart conceded that thinking about the chatter about the future has, at times, been difficult.

He feels no bitterness or jealously. The continuous talk has just served as a constant reminder that his UA career is coming to an end.

The only reason it’s hard for me is that I wish I could be here for it, Linhart said. This has just been an unbelievable experience. I love all these guys on the team, they’re my brothers.

In his last home game, Linhart promised that he would not go wild and take 10 or 15 shots, which demonstrates again his team-first mentality.

He’s the heart and soul of our team, Dambrot said. Everybody will think we’ll be a good team next year, but he isn’t going to be easy to replace.

Next year may hold many high expectations, but Zips fans still have much to look forward to this year. Next Sunday, the Zips will travel to Kent State University to take on the archrival Golden Flashes, and the MAC Tournament starts Tuesday, March 10.

Linhart will be honored in a pregame ceremony before the Zips take on the Ohio Bobcats in their final home game of the season. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.