Zips fall short of another upset

“They almost did it again. The University of Akron men’s basketball team came within about five minutes of securing its second upset in less than a week, before falling to Massachusetts 68-63 in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament Saturday.”

They almost did it again.

The University of Akron men’s basketball team came within about five minutes of securing its second upset in less than a week, before falling to Massachusetts 68-63 in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament Saturday. The Zips registered the program’s first win over an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent when it defeated Florida State 65-60 in the NIT’s first round March 18.

Those performances followed UA’s run to the Mid-American Conference Tournament title game, where it fell to Kent State.

Not bad for a team that was picked to finish fourth in the MAC East by the MAC News Media Association at the start of the season and had no players selected to the conference’s first-team at season’s end.

The team was supposed to fall from the MAC’s elite after hometown stars Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce completed their eligibility at the end of the 2006-07 season. The Zips started strong, but were all but written off for good when the team announced senior forward Jeremiah Wood had a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee Feb 8. and UA fell to MAC West cellar-dweller Northern Illinois at Rhodes Arena Feb. 12.

Wood returned to action just 16 days after having surgery to repair his knee when he played against Virginia Commonwealth Feb. 23. Senior guards Nick Dials and Cedrick Middleton battled lingering injuries of their own throughout the season.

The team that was supposed to throw up the red flag many times this season but never did. Its only road loss in the vaunted MAC East came at the hands of Kent State, who went undefeated at home the entire season. They defeated a more athletic and taller FSU team in Tallahassee on national TV. They almost accomplished the same feat in Amherst, Mass., where they led for most of the second half.

The statistical numbers of this year’s three starting seniors have been well documented. Those numbers are not the main reasons the program has compiled a 73-28 record over the past three years, however. Their toughness and desire to win are.

Next year, with the departure of the team’s three 1,000 point scorers, expectations will again plummet for the Zips.

There is reason for the lowered expectations. The Zips will have only two seniors on the roster (Jimmy Conyers and Nate Linhart), while seven freshman will suit up for UA. If you remember, yours truly even questioned the team’s chances of success in 2008-09 in an earlier column.

I’m still guarded in being too optimistic for next season, but I am encouraged by the play of underclassmen like the McKnight brothers and Daryl Roberts in this year’s postseason. Guard Steve McNees was named to the MAC’s All-Freshman Team.

Zips’ head coach Keith Dambrot implored the team’s faithful to look at the program’s recent history while remaining optimistic about the program’s future during his post-game interview Saturday on Sportsradio 1350 AM WARF.

Don’t lament Zips fans, he said at the end of the interview. They’ll pick us last, or damn near last, but I’ll be surprised if this isn’t a good basketball team next year.

We have to have some things go right – we gotta get Ronnie Steward back, we gotta get the McKnights better, Mike Bardo better and (Steve) Swiech better – but we still have some guys who have played some minutes in Daryl Roberts and Nate Linhart.

This team’s been built on team since I’ve been here. We’ve lost good players every year…We just continue to survive because we’re a team that doesn’t have a 25-point scorer.

The team faired pretty well in survival mode this year, so Zips’ fans can only hope that next year’s team will be able to scratch its way to the top of the MAC, following the example set by this year’s seniors.