It's mid-August of 2009, and football season is less than a month away. What better time to revisit the Championship Season that was the 2008-09 Akron Men's Basketball Zips!?
I was home under the weather earlier this week feeling miserable, and searching for something to watch yielded few options, so I cued up the best thing that resides on my DVR system. March 14, 2009 is the only prescription for a crappy day. What a great day .. and great weekend. Got to share it with my family & friends, and watch our team take down the nets. Good times.
I thought I'd repeat my retrospective from last summer and lead into future posts regarding the upcoming season, roster & schedule.
The Bottom Line:
The Zips went 23-13 overall. 10-6 in conference regular season, good for 3rd (tie) in the East.
The Zips went 4-0 in the MAC Tourney, dispatching Buffalo to win UA's first MAC Hoops Title.
The Zips advanced to the NCAA for the first time since 1986.
So those are the numbers .. the factual results. How did they get there?
- The Zips won the 2009 MAC Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament: The obvious best thing about last season. Our team got it done. Kicked the door in, overcome some adversity on Wednesday to come back and pound 3 higher seeded teams on Thursday, Friday & Saturday. The Zips were the best team in conference when March arrived, and they left with the hardware to prove it on March 14, 2009.
- Nate Linhart: The guy might not be the best player to play for the D1 Zips (IMHO Brown & Wood), but he might be the biggest winner we've ever had. He did all the little things well, things that don't always show up in the paper, but things that win games. For the past 3 seasons, Nate was the best defender on the Zips, and maybe the league. His ability to take guys like Bramos, Pierce, Miller completely out of the game was a HUGE factor in the Zips being where they are today. Thanks for being our guy Nate .. & good luck in Austria.
- Team Defense: In part because of the ability of #33 to eliminate or severely hinder many team's best scorer, the Zips' team defense was a big strength this season. I'd argue it was the biggest area of improvement over 07-08. The Zips held opponents to 40.3% shooting on all FG attempts, and 29.1% on 3 pointers. Those numbers were good for 40th and 5th best nationally, respectively. In conference they were 2nd and 1st. Compare that to 2007-08: Opponents FG% = 44.6 (114th nationally, 6th in MAC), 3PT % = 32.6 (289th nationally, 10th in the MAC). A huge step forward by the Zips was taken defensively, and it paid off.
- Use of the bench: For the first time in his tenure @ UA, KD was able to keep his bench at 10/11 deep throughout the season. In the past, we've seen the bench be 8-10 deep in January, and 7-8 deep in March. This season, due to good health, efforts and efficiency, KD had 10/11 solid contributors. You could really see the effects of this in the Miami game at the Q. The Zips are coming off an OT game on Wednesday, but it was the Redskins who wore down big time in the 2nd half. KD used his depth well, it responded by being effective, and the Zips were a rested crew throughout much of the season. 10 guys averaged 13+ minutes / game, and NO ONE played more than 30 minutes per game.
- Spreading the wealth: After losing 5 1000 point scorers from the past 2 teams, the Zips offense took a little dip, dropping to 67 ppg. You'd think that would cause them to struggle. No way. The Zips became a more difficult team to defend, because the points could come from almost anywhere. Nobody averaged 12 points per game, but 5 guys averaged more than 8. Down the stretch, I think that 2nd number may have grown to 6 guys over 8 with the emergence of Cvitenovic, but I haven't verified that. At times, guys like Brett, Humpty & McNees have carried the Zips (within games), but there's not one guy that opponents can key upon which would affect the Zips significantly.
- Tradition Builds: Winning breeds winning. The past 5 seasons are the winningest stretch of basketball in the Zips D1 era. Most wins. The ONLY postseason wins. Most conference tournament games won. A championship won & NCAA tournament appearance. These ARE the golden years, friends .. I hope you're enjoying them. The roster as it stands now, does not have a player on it that has had a losing season at UA. EVERY SINGLE returning player on the Zips has played a game the 2nd Saturday in March at the Q every season they've been here. Think about that. They don't know anything different than playing for the MAC title on Saturday night. Contrast that to the 15 years prior to KD .. pretty good in my book.
This is a relative list, things that weren't optimal, but in the light of a Championship season, things that stick out to me as areas for the 2009-10 Zips to improve upon.
- Home losses: 3 Home losses is more than the average for KD. 2 conference home losses (in the division) cost the Zips a bye. The BG game in particular was difficult, as it was late in the year, and really put the Zips behind the 8 ball on getting a bye. They didn't need one, but I'm spoiled & expect a win every time I go to the JAR now ..
- Temporary Brain Freezes: It seemed at times that there were moments where the cohesiveness simply broke down. Typically this didn't affect the defense much, but there were moments through out the season where the wheels simply came off the offense. It probably had to do with youth as much as anything, but there were 2 such occasions late in the season that show maybe it was something more.
- Assist:Turnover ratio: I think this is evidence that KD is still not getting the PG play he likes to have. The A:TO was less than one this season, meaning that distribution wasn't as effective as it has been in the past. This has been discussed here a bunch, but youth plays into this, and some guys who are labeled "PG" may actually be scoring guards, regardless of their stature. I think the back court is a real strength of the Zips going forward, but a real area for improvement for the Zips will be to tip the A:TO ratio over in 2009-10 .. with a better margin there, the scoring efficiency will rise & the offense will improve.
- Rebound Margin: I'm having a hard time getting to the bottom of this statistic with my usual tools, but according to Stat-Sheet, the Zips were only out-rebounded by 4 total rebounds on the season. But Stat-sheet reports that they were the leading rebounding team among MAC schools (for all games). Something isn't adding up. In some key losses: URI, Pitt & Gonzaga, the Zips got beat handily on the boards. This indicates to me that an important next step for competing at the higher level will be to close the gap in that statistic. Getting beat by 10 on the glass gives a bunch of extra possessions away .. and the Zips can't afford to do that. Adding a 7' center should help some, but Linhart was the Zips leading rebounder by about 1.5 rebounds per game .. so it is an area that the McKnights, Cvetinovic, Bardo .. etc. need to work on.
- Outside Shooting: This probably is a factor in the A:TO ratio above .. but the Zips struggled from outside for much of the year. They EXPLODED at the Q, especially against Miami .. but for much of the year the ball rotations to the open shooter didn't yield a high percentage hit. This then clogs the middle a little bit as teams can be content to pack the lane & go for the rebound, counting on the fact that the Zips will miss 2 of 3 from outside. Another area that if improved would really help the Zips .. they're bound to have more open looks out there with the size advantages inside. Should the Zips start knocking the outside shot down at rates from years past .. the offense will really be improved. Pair that with a good D .. and look out. B) B)
- I'm not dwelling on any of these, but here's where the Tums came in last season:
- 12 minutes against Toledo: Keith addressed this well at the BB Celebration @ the JAR. It was an ugly moment in time. The team knew it, the coaches knew it .. it wasn't fun. But they weren't out there TRYING to do things that way .. it just went down. Thank Heavens for the resolve of Nate Linhart, Chris McKnight .. and clutch shots by Humpty & Brett. That's all I'm going to say about that.
- Scoring droughts: The Toledo game wasn't the only time the Zips fought through extended scoring droughts. They had one early in the game against the Redskins on Thursday, and one in the second half against Gonzaga ended their season. Getting to the root of that issue and minimizing or eliminating these droughts will move the Zips another rung up on the ladder of quality D1 basketball teams.
- Our (fan's) Behavior: I don't say the following easily .. but I do say it. At times, I think that some Zips fans and even the Nation itself didn't represent the Zips as well as the Zips have represented us. I had the unfortunate experience of sitting in front of Zips fans for one game that were outright belligerent and abusive to OUR OWN players & staff. I've been told by a few friends that made it to Portland that a similar thing happened right behind some players' families. I saw it first had also at UMass (NIT in 08). There are moments when the conversations descend into bitter negativity .. and I think that's poison for other Zips fans, the team that's busting a$$ for UA, the staff whose energies are focused on advancing our team .. and players' families. This WILL affect recruiting, it WILL affect the commitment of those in the program to remain and fight for the Zips .. if the die-hard Zips fans easily fall into the trap of attacking those whom they profess to support. In the spring for the first time since this site started up .. and even back to the Dreamwater days, I found myself embarrassed to be involved, and felt I needed to apologize to others for the actions & comments of the Nation. It sucked balls.
I think others have said this well, but it bears repeating .. players families & recruits families are aware of the Nation if their son / daughter is considering UA. We might be their first (and only) direct exposure to the minds and hearts of Zips fans. If we screw it up .. there might not be a second chance for the staff to make a good impression. I believe we're all here to SUPPORT the Zips .. we are. We need to do that well and think about what we're posting sometimes.
.. And a Few Comments More:
- Bright future: It's really hard for me not to be bullish on the future of the Zips. KD brings back nearly the entire team that won the Championship in 2009. Linhart is a big loss, our 6th 1000 point scorer to depart in 3 years, and the heart of the 2008-09 Zips. But we bring in a GREAT kid .. a talented kid .. and nearly everyone is back after a summer of getting healthy & playing together even more. Optimism is high. The Zips will be favored to repeat .. now they are the hunted. It's a change .. and it will sure be fun to see how they adapt.
- Changes: As Rasor reported this week, there have been some player departures (Parrish and Coblentz). Both are losses .. but we wish them well. Parrish had a big upside .. in some of the practices I was at early in the season, it wasn't clear to me that he wouldn't play his way out of the redshirt and into the rotation. Nikola just beat him to it I guess. Coblentz showed he belonged at D1 .. so he should tear it up wherever he lands. As everyone knows, these guys contributed to the championship day in and day out .. so good luck guys. Jeff Boals departed for OSU also .. another loss. Jeff helped move the Zips upstream on the recruiting trail. He believed he could sell UA to the top-flight players that fit the mold of KD's team .. and he was successful. The Zips are better off for having Boals around. Otherwise, the team is largely intact and hopefully running well together this summer in anticipation on defending their MAC crown and getting back to the NCAA .. which brings me to ...
- Complacency: I think a real challenge for a team like the Zips that came up short a few times and then broke through is avoiding complacency. Chris, Jimmy & Brett know the bitter taste of the disappointment of the first 2 MAC finals. Humpty, Nikola, Brett McClanahan .. some of these younger guys, don't. A real challenge for the leaders of this team exists in making sure the younger guys come in with the same dedication as last year to improve, play hard, play smart & play together. How well they're doing that NOW will have direct implications on whether KD can come into practice in October and build on last season, or come in and try to recreate it. Let's hope he can come in and build on it and the players are ready to roll.
Shades on as always Zips fans!!! Ready for another season .. 2008-09 was one I'll never forget.