Happy Holidays to all! My sincere wish for everyone is for prosperity with challenges in the new year, because prosperity in the face of challenges keeps us sharp and is the most rewarding type. Regardless, best to all. Due to a very busy couple of quarters, I haven't been posting many hoops thoughts. This entry was started 3 weeks ago, and I'm just now coming back to it now.
A recent topic around ZN.O has been "what is Akron Basketball" .. probably because there's so many new faces trying to figure it out.
On March 10th, 2004 a new coach for Zips Basketball was introduced. In that press conference, he introduced what his concept for "Akron Basketball" would be. Paraphrasing: "We will play hard, we will play smart, and we will play together. If we do those things to the best of our ability, we'll be successful here."
So for the past seven season, the Zips mantra has always been "play hard, play smart, play together." I can think of only a few occasions (4 actually) in that time where it occurred to me that the Zips weren't doing that .. and even in those instances they fell down on one or two aspects .. not all three.
This season, the Zips entered the year with 5 returning key contributors and 5 new faces, some of whom would be relied upon as contributors for the Zips to be successful. In the summer we saw glimpses of the athleticism of these new Zips. The talent level isn't really a question for most of us. The unknown was always going to be how quickly the new group came together and filled the gaps left by 4 of the winningest players in Zips history.
So how are things going? Rather than trying to determine if the MAC is setting up for it's 5th at-large bid in 60 years, I thought I might just consider the definition of Akron Basketball and see how our guys are meeting the mantra.
- This has been a real mixed bag thus far: In the MSU game, the Zips looked much more energetic and active than a team that later broke into the top 25. Then against Detroit, the Zips used their numbers to wear down the (admittedly undermanned) Titans. However in other games, it's gone the other way. The Zips had a lead late vs. Valpo and slid backwards down the stretch. I'm not sure that the early games can be attributed to effort, but the WVU and MTSU losses seemed to come with late game stretches where the urgency wasn't there. These streteches are hard to watch, not the least bit because we're so unaccustomed to seeing the Zips play with uneven effort. Now in the bakery aisle the week between exams and the holidays, they Zips were back on top of their game effort wise .. destroying all four opponents, generally keeping the pedal down troughout the entire games.
- Rebounding and Defense are effort based: In the past 2 weeks this has become a strength, albeit against some overmatched competition. Zeke, Nikola, and Treadwell have worked very well on the glass of late, all averaging (through my recollection math) about 6-8 rebounds a game. If the front court rebounds in the mid-20's night in and night out, the Zips should do well on the glass in conference. Side note: Walsh seems to rebound really well from the backcourt, and gets a lot of the same across the lane boards Linhart was famous for. So this has been a nice help.
- Finishing has been a challenge in losses: Certainly in the first 2 losses (Valpo and Duquesne) the Zips had the chance to close down the stretch, either in the lead or very close. Against WVU, we know that finishing wasn't really the problem, same for MTSU. Against CSU, however, the ship turned a bit and the Zips played better down the stretch than they had through much of the game. In the bakery aisle, this wasn't a challenge for the front line guys.
In general, I think the Zips' effort has been there, and there's a good deal of hustle apparent on the court. As in previous years, there's not guys taking plays off .. and I don't expect it to be an issue in games this year either. KD simply has too much depth and talent to be forced to deal with this, and he won't need to. The Zips are playing hard.
- New players have forced a simplification of play book (dumbed down). KD has not hid the fact that he's trimmed his offensive playbook significantly as he mixes the new guys in. This has potentially helped the guys, but I think at times it has hurt the team as well. The plays in the 2nd and 3rd week of the season seemed geared more to leveraging the athleticism of individual guys, and less to working together as a unit to get the open / easy look. The upside is that it's helped get 5 new guys on the court and getting experience. The downside is that it's easier to guard a club with limited plays. Now the good sign is that we've seen much more of the offense in the past 2 weeks as he seems to put more in play.
- Leading to a lot more one-on-one clear outs (see below): This is a comment I wrote mainly after the Valpo / Duquesne games. The simplification of the play book at times led to lots of NBA style possessions where we cleared out for Q or Harney, relied on them beating their man as an individual and getting an open look. It led to struggles against Valpo when the calls weren't there on contact in the lane, and what ordinarily might generate 2 FT's generated a TO instead. There was also a period where Nikola took it upon himself to try and score individually .. and that inhibited the ability of the Zips to get into a flow together. I think that it has been good of late to see the assist total rise as the offensive cohesion improves and buckets are generated by 2 and 3 man possessions.
- Off the court:In order to be successful on the court as a team, the guys need to be smart off the court as individuals. It's been rare in KD's tenure here, but this season the off the court stuff has caught up with the younger players. I think we're at 9 missed games due to suspension / violation of team rules. My understanding is that these are all correctable, learning events that can be moved past in each case. But the guys need to grow and move past them so that they can continue to grow as a team and have good chemistry together. This will be difficult to get to if the available group of players changes every week. Play smarter of the court guys!
As the weeks have gone by, it seems as the collective basketball IQ has risen for the Zips, and the results have improved. What remains to be seen is how much that is linked to the youth and talent level of the opponent, and how much it is linked to the cohesion and effort by the Zips themselves. I think the next 2 games vs. VCU & @ Marshall will reveal much about
- Assists are down: This is another area where things have changed in the past 2 weeks for the better. Early on in the road trip, the Zips were playing a lot of man to man offense, letting the athleticism try and take over, with guys trying to beat their man off the dribble. This resulted in a few games where the assist totals were well off prior season's pace. Statsheet has a nice chart plotting total assists for the Zips against their opponents on a game by game basis. If you scan backwards over the past 3-5 years, you'll find no instances where the opponents' assist totals tracks as high as the Zips. However in the middle stretch of the non conference this season, you'll see that for a time, the Zips opponents actually had MORE assists than the Zips. This is in stark contrast to years past, and I think evidence that blending the new faces, and perhaps simplification has led to less sharing of the ball. The other side of the coin no doubt is that the Zips are converting more fast break attempts, and running more .. so those may result fewer assists.
- Too much one on one w/ no help: At times, the clearouts have really hurt the offensive flow. Notably the ends of the Valpo and Duquesne game. There have been moments where the guys are playing individually not as a unit. Nikola had his stretch where this was a problem, and several of the guys have been pressing. Lately however, this has improved a bunch. Nikola is back to his old self, and the offensive flow is getting better and better. The past 4 games @ the JAR have shown a pretty cohesive unit, moving the ball well in the half-court. Hopefully that trend can continue.
- You can't play together when you can't play: I've heard it a couple of times in the past week or so .. apparently KD has only had his full complement of guys for 2 games the entire year. Much of this was Deji's injury .. and now AA's surgery. But a LOT of it is suspension related. Maybe 9 games missed due to "unspecified violation of team or department policies"? This is far too much, and it will continue to have a detrimental affect on team chemistry and playing together. If guys aren't able to be out there .. then they can't play well together. I sincerely hope these issues can find their way into the rear-view mirror soon. The sooner the Zips can field their best 9 or 10 .. the better off they will be. Even with the small losing streak on the road, I think this Zips team is a bit ahead of where last year's club was at this time. Sitting at 7-5 with 2 non-con games isn't where we thought we'd be after taking it to MSU in the opener. However, looking at the flow of things on the court .. I look for the Zips to salvage no worse than a split of the next 2, going into conference play at 8-6 or 9-5. Bottom line: these guys need to play together. That means taking care of business off the court so that KD can play them together. Hope this turns around soon.
As with the basketball IQ on the floor .. the cohesiveness has improved game over game since the early slump. It's really critical that Harney get back soon, so that he can be mixed in to the rotations before the roadie to start conference play. As KD said on his TV show this week .. guys are out of position due to the injuries and missed games .. and they need to play in their preferred positions and get comfortable with each other. Hopefully Nick can resume his role smoothly very soon.
- I'm VERY bullish about this team: I was lucky to see these guys a few times over the summer and in early season practices. I'll maintain that this is the most raw talent ever assembled at UA, certainly in the last 20 years. The challenge comes down to the guys and the staff as to how well they put it together. We saw vs MSU, and I think we'll see a lot during MAC play .. the length and athleticism of this team is a very difficult matchup for most teams. That can pay big dividends when they get to the post season.
- Tree is an animal not a plant: Haven't gone too much into individual players in this post, but I'm continually astounded by Treadwell. He seems to have a real tenacity for the basketball on both boards, has some ball skills to put the ball on the floor to drive, or on the break .. and he apparently can fly. One of these days one of those ridiculous dunks is going to stay down .. and the JAR will go nuts. I think we're only seeing a small fraction of what he's capable.
- Should be a wild ride if they can get on a roll: I think this is a team that will ultimately be sensitive to momentum .. both during games and from game to game. When they're up, they're pretty good already .. when they're down, they've been mediocre. A challenge for the staff is to keep them level headed and on the upbeat side from game to game. You can see how some of the new pieces play much better when they're not pressing. This is where veteran leadership can help. The guys who have been through the full season w/ KD & co should be able to help the newer guys through it.
It's been an up and down few weeks related to the FB coaching search. Seems like we've been teased with resolution a few times only to have to wait a few days. Like many others, I'm really pleased with the hire that's been made, and looking forward to what it may bring for Akron Football. However, I can't shake the feeling that UA needs to balance its priorities soon. We're putting a lot of resources to the Football program. We've put investment into Soccer. Both for good and defendable reasons. I think a challenge for LP, TW & GVH is how to make sure hoops doesn't get left behind. Coach Bowden can be a big fundraiser and proponent for Zips Athletics. That's great. But a rising tide needs to lift all boats here. I don't bring this up for any reason but this nagging feeling I have about our current situation as it relates to 1986. In '86 we were in a great era of hoops. UA essentially pulled the plug on that to move the FB program to previously (and thus far) unseen heights. I hope we don't make the same mistake twice. I hope that we can use some of the new energy (and hopefully success) of Bowden's program to leverage whatever we can to improve hoops resources in the same way that Football and Soccer have seen their needs attended to the past few years. KD has brought the hoops team to the top of the conference. They're a consistent winner. They need to be treated as such sooner rather than later.
Get some extra pairs .. you're gonna need them: