A pair of teams with NCAA Tournament dreams took center stage in Humphrey Coliseum Wednesday night. When the final horn sounded, we had gotten a glimpse of a team likely to obtain the Cinderella moniker when March comes around.
The Akron Zips, a perennial MAC front-runner, jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. This was a team predicated on defensive intensity, and it showed. The Zips turned countless turnovers into scoring opportunities, dominated the interior and created fast break buckets.
Coming into the game, Zeke Marshall and Renardo Sidney were set for a matchup that had scouts salivating. In the end, it was Quincy Diggs who stole the show.
Diggs, a junior forward for the Zips, averaged just 5.3 points per game last season. In the road opener, the Kansas native put up a game-high 19 points. The athletic wing consistently saw the ball in transition and carved through the Bulldogs defense.
Also producing for Akron was point guard Alex Abreu. The sophomore from Puerto Rico pushed the pace offensively and created numerous fast break opportunities with his six steals.
As far as Marshall and Sidney were concerned, it appeared to be a clear win for Marshall. Marshall finished the game with 10 points, six rebounds and five blocks. However, this stat line doesn't tell the whole story. While in the game, Marshall created a presence of his own inside, altering the shots of everyone who dared penetrate the lane.
Will the Akron Zips be regular season MAC champions?
On the other end, Sidney left something to be desired. At times, the highly touted big man impressed with the ball. Unfortunately, he failed to take over the game like a star should. What was most disheartening was his presence, or lack thereof, at the end of the game.
For some reason, Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury chose to let Sidney sit for the final minutes of a close game, a time when he should have dominated the post. Marshall fouled out with several minutes left, and without his presence, the Zips had little to combat Sidney inside. Did Stansbury feel his center lacked the conditioning to be a force late in the game, or has he already lost faith in his big man to lead this team?
Mississippi State will need to bounce back quickly. While an early loss hurts, they faced a quality opponent that won't hurt their RPI down the stretch.
Senior point guard Dee Bost led the Bulldogs in scoring with 13 points. Unfortunately, it took a 2-9 outing from the field to get there. Also in double figures were Sidney (12) and highly touted freshman Rodney Hood (10). Arnett Moultrie produced an eight-point, 15-rebound effort.
The Bulldogs will look to improve from this game on Saturday when they take on South Alabama. Akron will also see action Saturday, as they face Division III opponent Hiram College.