After defeating Western Michigan last night, Ohio will face Akron in the Mid-American Conference Championship game for the right to advance to the NCAA tournament.
The Bobcats (24-8) and Zips (25-6) will be meeting in the MAC championship game for the third time in four years.
Akron is making its seventh straight appearance.
The two teams have combined to win the last four conference titles; Akron won in 2009 and 2011, and Ohio took the crown in 2010 and 2012. Both of the Bobcats’ championship game wins came against the Zips, including last year’s 64-63 bout.
“It’s only right,” said Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper. “We love playing Akron.”
The Zips and Bobcats shared the MAC regular-season title with records of 14-2; however, Akron won both meetings between the two teams, including a classic overtime battle in Athens 17 days ago.
“We feel like we gave the game away the first two times,” said Cooper. “If you’re a competitor, you love to play in those games.”
The significant difference between those two games and the championship game tonight will be the absence of Alex Abreu.
Akron suspended the starting point guard after he was a arrested on drug charges. He was a driving force behind the Zips’ nation-leading 19-game winning streak.
Although losing Abreu (10.3 points, 6 assists) surely weakens the Zips, Ohio head coach Jim Christian knows Akron still has plenty of other weapons.
“They play 11 guys,” said Christian. “They’re a good basketball team with him, they’re a good basketball team without him.”
Freshman Carmelo Betancourt has started the past two games at point guard for the Zips in lieu of Abreu’s suspension. He played 20 minutes in the Zips’ three-point semifinal win over Kent State last night, scoring just one point, while committing four turnovers.
Akron coach Keith Dambrot brought forward Nick Harney off the bench (he had started the previous 19 games) to handle ball-handling duties while Betancourt was off the floor. Harney responded with 11 points and tied his season high with four assists.
Akron will rely heavily on MAC Defensive Player of the Year Zeke Marshall (13.1 points, 7 rebounds, 3.7 blocks), the conference’s all-time leading shot blocker and hard-nosed forward Demetrius Treadwell (11.3 points, 7.9 boards).
The pair combined for 32 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocks (seven of which were by Marshall) last night.
“I think they have the best mid-major frontcourt in college basketball,” said Christian of the powerful duo. “There are not many teams that put seven-footers out there that control the paint, and they surround those guys with a lot of shooters.”
The undersized Bobcats know rebounding will be vital if they want to win their third conference title in four years.
“It’s no secret, we’re a small team,” said Walter Offutt, who led Ohio last night with 11 rebounds from his small forward position.
Cooper scored a game-high 21 points in yesterday’s win, hitting 6-of-8 shots from the field, including 4-of-6 from downtown. Cooper has averaged 20.3 points, 7.7 assists and two steals in Cleveland since his 23-point performance in the 2010 title clinching win over the Zips.
“I’m just trying to step up, make big plays and do whatever it takes to get the job done,” said Cooper.
“Seniors step up and make big-time plays,” said Offutt, when asked about Cooper’s heroics. “That’s what he’s known for in the past four years he’s been here at Ohio.”
Tipoff for the championship game is set for 6:30 p.m. from Quicken Loans Arena and will be televised nationally on ESPN 2.
This article first appeared on speakeasyohiou.com, a student-run online publication at Ohio University.
Marlowe Alter is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.