MAC Tournament preview: Zips look for third title in four years

By: DJ Johnson

The 2012 Mid-American Conference Tournament kicked off Monday night with on-campus games. Wednesday, second round games were played at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

The No. 1 seed in the tournament, the Akron Zips, have the bittersweet feeling of waiting to play their first game on Friday in the semifinals.

A season ago, it took four games for the Zips to grab the postseason title. This season, it will only take two.

“I’m the kind of guy that likes to play,” said Akron Head Coach Keith Dambrot. “I’ve never been through this.”

UA, looking for its third NCAA Tournament berth in four years, is coming off its first MAC regular season title. Their 13-3 finish in the conference tied the school’s best record since joining the MAC in 1992.

“It all comes down to who plays well on that particular night,” Dambrot said. “You can be great all year, but if you lose in that MAC Tournament…you’re not going to the big dance.”

The Zips have already locked up an automatic National Invitation Tournament (NIT) berth with the regular season championship, but have made it clear that their sights are set on the NCCA Tournament.

The road to being one of the 68 teams in the field will be no cakewalk for Dambrot and company. Fourth-seeded Kent State is the favorite to reach the semifinal in the top half of the bracket, where they will find the Zips.

“It’s going to be hard to beat Kent,” Dambrot said. “We’re not better than them and they’re not better than us.”

Akron did sweep the season series between the two schools, relying on a pair of second-half comebacks to pull out the wins. Last Friday, trailing by nine at the half, the Zips came out of the break with a 22-2 run. The momentum led to a six-point win.

The two teams could potentially tip off Friday night at 7 p.m. if the Flashes can win their quarterfinal matchup Thursday at 7 p.m.

“I just want them to play together and play, and if that’s not good enough, then so be it,” Dambrot said. “If someone gets hot, anything can happen.”

The odds are in the Zips’ favor. The last time Akron did not make the MAC final was the 2005-2006 season.

History aside, the Zips are decimal points behind league-leading Buffalo for the top scoring offense in the league. UA finished the regular season in the top five of all offensive categories but one, highlighted by shooting a league-high 46.3 percent from the field.

Defensively, centerpiece Zeke Marshall was rewarded for his efforts Tuesday morning. He was named MAC Defensive Player of the Year. The seven-footer compiled 89 blocks on the season (2.9 per game), which was good for 13th in the nation.

Junior Quincy Diggs was named Sixth Man of the Year in the MAC. Diggs finished the season averaging 8.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per gam