UA basketball: Experience and defense are keys to Zips season

By George M. Thomas
Beacon Journal sports writer

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The University of Akron men’s basketball team begins the season tonight on the road against Coastal Carolina with the Zips’ biggest advantage being experience.

The Zips return four of five starters for the game in Conway, S.C., giving coach Keith Dambrot a certain level of comfort. Center Zeke Marshall, forward Chauncey Gilliam and guards Alex Abreu and Brian Walsh usually started for the Zips last season. The new man charged with filling Nikola Cvetinovic’s role, forward Demetrius Treadwell, played a lot last season.

Contrast that with Coastal, a team that has won 75 games over the past three seasons but is working with a new center and forward.

Dambrot maintains the highest respect for Coastal coach Cliff Ellis, who has won more than 100 games at each of three colleges.

“He’s a lot like [Zips football coach Terry] Bowden. He’s coached at Clemson. The last three years, he’s won 25 games per season,” Dambrot said after practice Wednesday.

However, that’s not to say that the Zips won’t face obstacles of their own in this game. They get the honor of being the first team to play the Chanticleers in their new arena, the HTC Center. Although Dambrot said that it would be huge to spoil Coastal Carolina’s opener, it won’t be easy.

“It’s a big game for us. Hopefully we’ll get Alex out there for 10 or 15 minutes,” Dambrot said.

Abreu, who has practiced this week, will be the biggest question mark for the Zips as he continues to recover from an ankle sprain. As it stands, backup freshman point guard Carmelo Betancourt will get significant playing time.

“It’s hard to play without him. It really is because he knows [the system],” Dambrot said. “Melo doesn’t really know what we’re doing yet. It’s kind of like playing with a freshman quarterback.”

Sophomore Deji Ibitayo and freshman Reggie McAdams will likely see some time at the point. That won’t eliminate the primary concern at that position. Even with Abreu, the Zips will have to contend with 6-foot-2, veteran guard Kierre Greenwood (11.1 points, five assists, 3.6 rebounds).

The other guard position will present challenges, too. Anthony Raffa, 6-foot-1, led Coastal in scoring last year with 16.7 points per game.

Dambrot also will focus on the Zips’ modified defense. It’s aggressive, up tempo and likely a high-risk-high-reward proposition. It relies on relentless pressure to force turnovers and to wear teams down in the second half. It worked to near perfection in the exhibition against Tiffin more than a week ago — but that was Tiffin.

“We haven’t played very good defensively ­— partly because we’ve been playing a lot of guys,” Dambrot said. “If we’re going to win, we’re going to have to play better defense.”

Quick hits

UA is 67-44 all-time in season openers and is 12-32 when opening the season on the road. Under Dambrot, the Zips are 5-3 overall, 2-2 when opening on the road. … In the past eight seasons, the Zips have won 184 games, the most in the Mid-American Conference and 31st nationally. … This will be the team’s 112th season. ... The Zips are ranked 15th among mid-majors in the Mid-Major Top 25 Poll.

George M. Thomas can be reached at Read the Zips blog at Follow him on Twitter at and on Facebook at

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