Updated Tue, Feb 26, 2013 12:51 pm
Thousands of fans packed the James A. Rhodes H&PE Building on a cold, winter day in Akron, Oh. to watch a pair of undefeated Mid-American Conference teams battle it out for the top spot of the East Division.
The hype heading into that Feb. 2 game couldn’t have been any greater. The Zips were on a 12-game winning streak. The Bobcats had won seven in a row.
It was Ohio who came out firing, opening with a 13-point lead in the early going, but it was Akron who turned it into a 14-point victory.
Zeke Marshall, the 7-footer, was a stud. He had 17 points, 12 rebounds and went 8-for-8 from the field.
Demetrius Treadwell was even more difficult to stop, pounding it down low for 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Alex Abreu, to round out the Akron big three, outplayed D.J. Cooper, going 7-of-10 from the field and 3-of-5 from three for 21 points. He also dished a game-high nine assists. The Bobcats, who leads the nation in assists per game, collectively had only three more dimes than the Akron point guard.
And then who can forget the role players? Starter Nick Harney and bench player Reggie McAdams scored a combined 24 points for the Zips.
Several Akron starters played games they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, maybe even career-best games.
As for Ohio, their focus immediately became their next matchup against Akron. Ohio forward Reggie Keely tweeted on Feb. 3, “Thats fine... 2/27/13.” The Bobcats were hungry for revenge.
Regardless, that all happened 24 days ago. A lot can change in a month.
There’s one thing that hasn’t altered, though. Akron’s winning streak has remained intact for the entire month of February, as their 18 straight victories are best in the nation.
The Bobcats are, on the other hand, coming off their second loss in February. Their defense struggled mightily against Belmont, preventing them from picking up the momentum they wanted heading into the home game with Akron.
Ohio has been eyeing this game on their schedule for a while. If they win Wednesday, they give themselves an opportunity to at least have a share of the MAC regular season title, one of the few accomplishments this senior class has not achieved.
It won’t be an easy task based on how every Akron player performed against Ohio in their first matchup, but several of the key players for the Zips have come back down to Earth since their career games.
Since going perfect from the field and killing the Bobcats inside for 17 points, Marshall’s scoring production in the Zips’ last five games has dipped a little to 11.2 points per game. His rebounding has also dropped to 7.0 a game. He still remains a force, though. At 7-foot, he’s a threat to block any shot thrown up by the Bobcats.
Treadwell has combined with Marshall to form a vicious duo down low. He attacks the boards with force and that showed in his 15 point, 10 rebound outing. He’s averaged 10.2 points and 7.6 rebounds since Feb. 2, which is similar to his season averages.
Keely, who guarded Marshall and Treadwell several times last game, is sticking to a similar game plan the Bobcats drew up heading into their first matchup. He and the rest of the Ohio big men are treating everything in practice like it’s a game, physically and mentally.
“I think (Akron’s last game) success, they hit a bunch of shots they don't normally hit. Crowd plays a big factor in that. We're gonna be here this game,” Keely said. “So I mean for the jump shots, I want them to take jump shots kinda, but you know, you've just gotta work to make them catch the ball out about 15 feet.”
While he’s trying to get in the heads of the Akron big men on the court, Keely has taken his thoughts on an Akron guard to the Twitter world.
Following Ohio’s 81-62 loss to Belmont, Akron sharpshooter Brian Walsh tweeted, “What is OU doing? They're letting Belmont speed them up & they look like frantic lil boys out there smh.”
Keely was not pleased with Walsh’s tweet, stating the Akron guard was a joke and making fun of his hair style. Some questioned if Keely should have even been tweeting back at Walsh, avoiding the possibility of giving the guard any motivation after sitting out Akron’s BracketBuster game with an ankle injury.
“I felt like he took a shot at us, and you know, I took a funny crack back. It wasn't too serious. Just a hair joke. If they want to take it (as motivation), then they can,” Keely said. “I didn't say Akron was a terrible team. They're having a really good year. I mean, for him to come at my team, I take that a little personal, you know. I just had to throw a little jab back. No big deal.”
The bigger deal for the Bobcats is Walsh practiced Monday and could be in the starting lineup after being questionable with his ankle injury. His return will key, as Walsh has averaged 11.8 points on 8-of-15 three-point shooting since having just two points against the Bobcats.
The ultimate matchup to keep an eye on is the always exciting, always entertaining D.J. Cooper vs. Alex Abreu battle at the point guard position. Last game, Abreu got the better of Cooper, scoring 21 and dishing nine assists while Cooper only managed 14 points and six assists. Cooper was also only 3/10 from the field and 1/5 from three, forcing several shots from deep.
Abreu’s 21 points were a season-high, but he has only averaged 9.8 points in his last five games, matching his season average. He always finds a way to score against Cooper, though. He’s poured in a combined 40 points in his last two games against Ohio.
This is no knock on Cooper, though, as he has had great success against the Zips over his four-year career. He’s averaged 18.4 points, 7.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds a game in nine appearances against Akron.
The senior class is 5-4 and 2-0 in the MAC Tournament against the Zips. Last season, the Bobcats lost a tough 68-63 road match, but bounced back later on in the season to stomp Akron, 85-61. 367 days later, the Bobcats are trying to do the same thing, only against a ranked MAC foe now.
The Bobcats are 3-4 all-time against ranked opponents at home, with their last victory coming against No. 23 Eastern Michigan, who was led by Earl Boykins. Over 10,000 fans are predicted to be in attendance for this historic game for the Ohio basketball archives. The fans are excited. The players are excited. Even Coach Jim Christian is ready for this one.
“I'm excited, you know. When we set out to, first of all, all of our goals was to win the conference regular season title. We're right where we need to be, playing for first place late in February,” Christian said. “It's a heck of a race. It's probably the best race in the MAC maybe ever. With probably the first undefeated team this late. We've got one loss so now we're playing again.
“Like I told these guys, it's no bigger than any other big game in college basketball. You watch Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Duke-North Carolina, the big games when they play. It's a big game. There's always something on the line, and that's the kind of games you want to play.”
As for Keely, he’s been getting ready for this defining game ever since they left the JAR on Feb. 2.
“I feel like it's huge. It's probably the biggest game of my MAC career. We did everything else. We won MAC Tournament titles. The only thing missing is that MAC regular season title,” Keely said. “Everybody's hungry for it. Everybody wants it just as bad as I do. We're going to fight for it.”
It’s the main event. Round two begins Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in the Convocation Center. Let’s get ready to rumble.