March Madness Sleeper Series: How Akron Could Shock the World

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March Madness Sleeper Series: How Akron Could Shock the World
Eric P. Mull-USA TODAY Sports

Almost three years after Akron's most famous native son decamped for South Beach—leaving a trail of smoldering "witnesses" in his wake—the city has embraced yet another athletic giant.

His name is Zeke Marshall. He stands 7' with a wingspan that stretches to 7'5". He plays basketball for the the University of Akron Zips, and he plays it damn well.

These days you can find Marshall's hulking likeness plastered across a building at the center of campus, arms outstretched in Jamesian glory with a two-word motto tucked underneath his right arm:

 "Think Bigger"

Rarely has bravado sounded so prophetic.

Thanks to a towering front line, the Zips (22-4) have emerged as one of the nation's best mid-major teams, reeling off a nation-best 18-game winning streak and even drawing the attention of LeBron James himself, who told the Associated Press: ''I'm following them a lot. They're on top of the MAC and they're playing some really, really good ball right now."

It figures, then, that the King, a former pupil of Zips coach Keith Dambrot at St. Vincent-St. Mary, will have his eye on the hometown team when it travels to second-place conference rival Ohio on Wednesday for a game that should determine the regular-season MAC champion. Pass that test, and the Zips could be well on their way to March.

If you're trying to handicap this talented, rugged mid-major from there, I'd simply remind you to heed the billboard.

Why They're Dangerous

1. Akron Has High-Major Size

The David-Goliath parable gets plenty of mileage during the NCAA tournament, and with good reason. 

Time and again we've seen undersized double-digit seeds slay the proverbial giant with some combination of three-point shooting and perimeter defensive pressure, so much so that analysts try to target teams that specialize in those two areas when making bracket predictions.

Generally speaking, that logic is sound. Teams that use their relative brawn to beat up on mid-major competition usually find their strengths neutralized against even average-sized Power Six teams.

But every once in a while, we find a stone-thrower that truly can measure up to the big boys. Future NBA center Patrick O'Bryant and Bradley University paved the way in 2006, and Akron fits a similar mold.

The Zips rank 42nd nationally in effective height. And while that might sound modest, consider that teams in the Power Eight (includes the Mountain West, A-10 and Gonzaga) make up just 29 percent of all D1 schools but a full 64 percent of teams ranked among the nation's top 50 in effective height.

Matt Ryerson-USA TODAY Sports

In other words, Akron is a rare bird among mid-majors. It's no surprise then that the Zips—who feature six rotation players listed at 6'7" or taller—dominate the painted area.

Dambrot's team has the nation's 20th-best two-point field-goal percentage and the third-best two-point field-goal defense. To give those figures some context, only Florida, Kentucky and Indiana fall among the top 20 nationally in both of those categories.

In a similar vein, Akron ranks 13th nationally in block percentage and 30th overall in block percentage against.

The result is a defense that ranks 37th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and first in conference play with 0.883 points-per-possession allowed.

In article by Bill Livingston of The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Dambrot verbalized much of what the numbers show: "We have the size to play with anybody in the country. That's why Butler and Gonzaga are good. Mid-majors usually don't have that. We're big, strong and long everywhere."

 

2. Zeke Marshall

There's no prospect narrative more enticing to a mid-major coach than that of the coveted "late bloomer."

It's the reason you see tall, athletic-looking guys on the end of every bench in America—all of them there under the Powerball premise that one in 1,000 might someday turn into Zeke Marshall.

When the 7' senior arrived at Akron four years ago, he was still in pubescent flux. Former Akron assistant Jeff Boals likened him to a baby deer (via FoxSportsOhio.com):

The best comparison I can make for Zeke at 18 is Bambi—tries to walk but keeps falling down. He was still maturing physically and emotionally. We tried to sell him that at a place like Akron, he might have a little more time to find his stride.

Said stride has officially been found.

The reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year is having a headline season for the Zips, and it starts with his work in the paint. Marshall, the nation's seventh-best shot-blocker by percentage, has been such a sterling post defender that he's starting to draw the interest of NBA draftniks.

As Joe Treutlein at DraftExpress writes, "Seven-footers with [Marshall's] length and shot-blocking instincts aren't easy to come by,"

Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis also took note of Marshall's defensive prowess in a recent tweet:

On the offensive end, Marshall remains an unfinished product, but his scoring average has increased each of his four years in Akron, topping out at a team-leading 12.6 per game this season.

So often we worry about dominant small-conference big men falling short against Power-Six athletes, but Marshall is the kind of specimen that can transcend those typecasts.

Here's how Marshall has fared over the last two seasons against what I would term significant nonconference competition:

Opponent Points Rebounds Blocks Result
Mississippi State 10 6 5 W
Detroit 11 6 1 W
West Virginia 10 3 2 L
VCU 10 3 6 L (OT)
Northwestern 17 7 1 L
Oklahoma State 10 12 2 L (OT)
Penn State 17 7 6 W
Creighton 12 2 2 L
Detroit 7 6 5 L
Aggregate 11.6 5.8 3.3 3-6

Now compare that to Marshall's overall dashboard statistics each of the last two years:

Points Rebounds Blocks Year
10.4 5.4 2.8 2011-12
12.6 6.8 3.5 2012-13

Notice much difference? I don't.

Marshall is one of those rare small-college players who is just as effective against tournament-quality teams as he is against the denizens of the MAC.

Off the court, the self-described "nerd" may be more fascinating still, but I'll keep to the chalk and let Zeke do the talking on this one.

 

3. They Aren't Afraid to Chuck It

All this pontificating about Akron's high-major physical profile obscures the fact that the Zips do share one key thing in common with the typical upset specialist: They love to shoot threes.

In fact, Akron ranks 62nd nationally in three-point field goals as a percentage of overall attempts. And although the Zips connect on only 34 percent of those attempts (165th in the nation), their pedestrian success rate is mitigated by the fact that they grab so many of their own misses.

To wit, only 22 teams in the entire country grab a greater percentage of available offensive rebounds than Akron.

Guards Alex Abreu and Brian Walsh are the leading beneficiaries of all that dirty work. Each has attempted over 100 three-pointers this year, with Abreu connecting on 38.9 percent of his attempts and Walsh converting at an even better 40.7-percent clip.

Matt Ryerson-USA TODAY Sports

In Abreu's case, however, the shooting numbers alone sell him short.

On a team with tremendous depth—Akron ranks 40th nationally in bench minutes—the Puerto Rican-born point guard is one of the only players regularly asked to log more than 25 minutes in a game, and his 30 minute-per-game average is tops on the team.

It's Abreu's heady play on the perimeter that makes Marshall and forward Demetrius Treadwell so effective inside, and some, like Eastern Michigan head coach Rob Murphy, say it's Abreu who holds the keys to Akron's postseason fate (via The Cleveland Plain-Dealer): "Abreu is very important for them. He is their one steady point guard who has to be counted on to make sure they are going to be successful.'"

Inside and out, the Zips have pieces in place to beat high-major competition. Put it all together, and you get something along the lines of what ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas told the Associated Press in early February:

'They haven't been playing under my radar. I've been watching them all season. They're a really good basketball team. They do a really good job offensive rebounding. They can defend in the post, they've got really good guards and Marshall is only getting better.

 

Teams Akron Could Beat in the NCAA Tournament

1. La Salle

La Salle is a No. 11 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest bracket and Akron is a 13. If the two meet in the middle at 12, the Explorers could be in trouble. One of the nation's shorter teams in effective height, La Salle has been among the A-10's worst at defending the two-point shot.

 

2. Minnesota

Tubby Smith's Golden Gophers are plenty tall, but they've been a wreck on the defensive glass. Among Big Ten teams, only Illinois and Northwestern have corralled a lower percentage of opponent misses. That's surprising given the presence of forward Trevor Mbakwe, but the numbers say Zeke Marshall could feast on this Minnesota team.

 

Note: All statistics courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.

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