AKRON The numbers are impressive: 11 straight 21-win seasons, six NIT berths, three Mid-American Conference tournament titles and NCAA tournament berths and eight MAC championship game appearances in 10 seasons.
For the Akron Zips, what has been is outstanding. Now, the question is what’s next for the best program in the MAC over the past decade. Head coach Keith Dambrot, an Akron graduate in his 13th season at the helm, cautioned the crowd at the team’s preseason media day at the UA student union not to take success for granted.
“People think it’s easy, but it’s not easy and it’s really a tribute to the guys in the program, the stability of the program and we’re like that watch … we can get hit in the mouth and we keep on ticking. We’ve been through four athletic directors, we’ve been through three presidents, we’ve been through budget cuts, we’ve been through bad publicity, but we just keep on ticking,” Dambrot said after rattling off a list of the program’s recent accomplishments.
This year’s edition of the Zips has plenty of assets, but also several question marks. Akron returns seven members of its rotation from last season, including three full-time starters in senior forward Kwan Cheatam and junior guards Noah Robotham and Antino Jackson. Additionally, reigning MAC Sixth Man of the Year Isaiah Johnson is back, giving Akron two 6-foot-9 post presences in he and Cheatham.
Dambrot noted that both Johnson and Cheatham have already earned their undergraduate degrees in just three years and as such, were eligible under NCAA rules to transfer without having to sit out.
“Both Kwan and Isaiah graduated in three years and what people don’t realize is when you graduate early, you can go anywhere in the country and play immediately,” Dambrot said. “Those guys could have gone anywhere in the country with their size and skill set, but they stayed with us and are loyalty and commitment to us is big.”
Johnson, who has worked extensively on his conditioning since arriving at UA, started nine games last season and would be a starter on most teams, but accepted coming off the bench as a junior and thrived in the role, averaging 13.6 points and 7.6 rebound per game. Despite winning the sixth man honor and earning a spot on the All-MAC first team, Johnson insisted he has only one goal this season.
“Honestly to me, the only thing I want to do is win,” Johnson said. “I feel like the last three years we’ve had the best team in the MAC and we feel short all three years for discipline reasons.”
He later clarified that by discipline reasons, he meant not taking care of the finer details of the game and those mistakes leading to losses by virtue of not boxing out, not making the extra pass and not being focused in key moments.
Robotham returned to action last season after a torn ACL ended his freshman season early and looked a bit rusty at times, but said he felt 100 percent last season. Dambrot often uses he and Jackson together even though both stand just 6 feet tall, giving the Zips a small, quick back court with great ball handling capabilities.
“Noah … battled through that injury and came back and is poised to have a big year … kind of an equilibrium guy and our brains on the floor,” Dambrot said. “Antino is kind of that lightning rod guy for us that we need.”
Jackson, who has shown a proclivity for taking and making big shots from way out on the floor, said his confidence in big moments comes from all the time he’s spent in the gym and the confidence his teammates and coaches have in him to make those shots.
When it comes to not gaining much individual recognition despite the team’s success, Dambrot pointed to a system that is built on collective success and not having one scorer who carries the team, but said the system does lead to UA players being overlooked for awards such as player of the year in the conference.
Newcomers Tavian Dunn-Martin, Emmanuel Olojapoke, Daniel Utomi and Michael Hughes will compete for playing time to fill out the rotation behind Robotham, Jackson, Johnson, Cheatham, sophomore guard Josh Willaims (St. Vincent-St. Mary), sophomore guard Jimond Ivey and junior forward Aaron Jackson. Akron typically plays as many as 10 guys in its rotation, so the final two or three spots will likely go to freshmen or redshirt freshman.
Those new faces will be put through a series of tests against top mid-major foes such as Creighton, Gonzaga, UC Irvine and Air Force. By the time MAC play opens on Jan. 3 at home against Bowling Green, the Zips should have a good idea of where they stand.
Coming on what Dambrot deemed “a really rough year as a school and a university last year,” the veteran coach’s hope is that his program can be part of a turn for the better.
“We kind of view it as we’re going to do our thing no matter what the circumstances are,” Dambrot said. “I think we have an opportunity now to really around teams like ours to make our city and our university better. Our slogan this year really is, ‘Pride of the city, pride in the city.’”
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