New look, similar expectations: Akron men's basketball preview

By: DJ Johnson

In March, for the second time in three years, The University of Akron men’s basketball team raised the MAC Championship trophy in celebration of their tournament win.

Fast forward nearly eight months, after four seniors have graduated, and the new-look Zips begin their season with even higher expectations.

“We sustained and created a winning mentality, but now it’s time to take another step,” said senior forward Nikola Cvetinovic.

Cvetinovic, the leading scorer on the 23-win team from a year ago, will be amid a squad of familiar and not-so-familiar faces on the floor.

Starters Darryl Roberts and Steve McNess have graduated, as well as key contributors Brett McKnight and Mike Bardo. Head Coach Keith Dambort will look to replace the group of former Zips.

“The biggest thing we have to do is we can’t diminish what those four guys that we lost did last year,” Dambrot said.

Despite what looks to be a familiar starting lineup, with the addition of junior Quincy Diggs, UA will welcome in a quad of players that were not able to see the floor a season ago.

Transfers Brian Walsh (Xavier) and Chauncey Gilliam (UMBC), along with sophomores Nick Harney and Demetrius Treadwell will look to add depth to the defending MAC Champions’ lineup.

“Our four newcomers are very talented,” Dambrot said. “They have great ability, but they still have to play in the Akron uniform and play the Akron way.”

Brett McClanahan, Alex Abreu and Zeke Marshall, along with Diggs and Cvetinovic, all have at least a year in the program, and were the starting five in last Thursday’s exhibition game with John Carroll (an 84-62 victory).

The experience and talent of the Zips have landed them as a favorite to win the Mid-American Conference.

Entering Wednesday’s regular-season opener at Mississippi State (7 p.m., ESPNU), the Zips are projected to finish second in the MAC East division. The lone team expected to finish ahead of Dambrot’s squad is last year’s MAC regular-season champion Kent State.

“I think by the end of the year we will be where we have always been,” said the eighth-year head coach. “We installed a winning mentality here.”

Dambrot has not had less than a 20-win season since his first year with UA (2004-2005). At that time, the 19 wins was the most for the school since 1988-89.

Arguably, the 2010-2011 season will be highest profile year in the program’s history.

A matchup with West Virginia and former Akron Head Coach Bob Huggins is set for Nov. 28. A month later, the Zips will host former Akron assistant Shaka Smart as he leads Virginia Commonwealth, who earned a final four bid last season as an 11 seed.

Other notable matches outside the conference include Detroit (Nov. 26), Cleveland State (Dec. 10) and Youngstown State (Dec. 19).

The Zips’ home opener is Saturday, as they host Hiram College. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.