Akron Zips, winners of 11 straight, shooting their way toward the Big Dance

Tuesday January 31st, 2017

Feeling zippy lately? You might just be watching the hot-shooting offense of Akron, the MAC leader at 8–0 in conference play and winner of 11 straight. The Zips are fun—just ask hometown hero LeBron James—and at 18–3 overall, they have a chance this week to surpass last season’s 20–4 start with games this week against Northern Illinois and Ohio.

Akron had a strong season last year, going 26–9, but after that great start it stumbled a tad down the stretch and got clipped in the MAC tournament final by Buffalo. That denied the Zips what would’ve been their second NCAA tournament bid in four years (they went to the NIT instead), but this year’s group looks to have only grown. With forwards Isaiah Johnson and Kwan Cheatham Jr. back and leading the way as seniors, Akron has only had one real blemish so far—a bad season-opening road loss to Youngstown State (kenpom.com No. 295). And while its schedule hasn’t been very daunting, it has won the rest of the games it could be expected to, falling only to Creighton (then a top 10 team) and current No. 1 Gonzaga on the road in December.

One of the main things you should know about Akron is that it takes a lot of threes—in fact, 40% of its points come from behind the arc, which is eight-most in the nation. As a team, the Zips make 38.5% of them, led by Cheatham Jr. (43.5% on 5.5 attempts per game), junior Antino Jackson (42.1% on 4.5 attempts) and freshman Tavian Dunn-Martin (40.0% on 2.6 attempts). Cheathem Jr. and Jackson have both improved their perimeter shooting significantly from last season.

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While the Zips don’t take nearly as many shots from inside the arc as most teams, they’re top-10 in the country in two-point percentage. So while their success can be contingent on a good shooting night, the three ball isn’t the only way for Akron to score. In fact, the Zips’ leading scorer, the 6' 10" Johnson (16.2 ppg), hasn’t attempted a three all season. Johnson is great at drawing fouls and getting to the line, and while his poor free-throw shooting (58.1%) negates some of that, his other contributions (7.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists) help make him the top player on kenpom.com’s All-MAC team; he’s even ahead of Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene, the nation’s leading scorer.

Akron leads the MAC during conference play in a number of key offensive stats, including efficiency, effective field-goal percentage, turnover rate, free-throw rate and two-point percentage. Its defense leaves more to be desired, but lies mostly middle-of-the-pack in the conference. Still, you can see the cause for concern: in a win over Buffalo on Saturday, the Zips scored 91 points—but surrendered 90, including 50 in the second half. It was the fourth time in eight MAC games that their opponent totaled at least 80 points, and that’s despite the Zips typically playing at a fairly slow tempo.

Still, a win’s a win, and Akron has been doing a lot of winning lately. If the Zips end up taking the MAC tournament crown and head to the NCAAs, it’s easy to see a scenario where they could get hot from the outside and make their first-round game interesting, especially if they’re not matched up with an elite offense. But first, they’ll have to get through the rest of their MAC schedule, which includes tough road contests at Ohio and Eastern Michigan. One thing is for sure—you can expect plenty of threes.

College Basketball
Bubble Watch: Power conferences crowding the NCAA tournament field

Game of the Week: Illinois State at Wichita State, Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2

A lot’s on the line in this Missouri Valley Conference battle on Saturday, with the first-place Redbirds bringing what will likely be a 12-game winning streak (assuming they get past Northern Iowa on Wednesday) to Charles Koch Arena. Illinois State has had its way with the MVC so far, opening 10–0 in conference play—including a 14-point home win over the Shockers—but Wichita State has recovered nicely from that loss and, at 9–1, is at the Redbirds’ heels.

The Shockers have won the last three Missouri Valley regular-season titles, while the Redbirds haven’t accomplished the feat since 1990–91. But if Illinois State goes 2–0 this week, it will control its own destiny for a No. 1 seed in Arch Madness. That’s a big if, as Wichita State is 12–1 at home this year. If the Shockers protect their home court Saturday, it will set up an exciting finish to the season in the MVC.

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Player to Watch: Saint Mary’s junior center Jock Landale

No. 1 Gonzaga may be tearing its way through the West Coast Conference so far, but Saint Mary’s does remain within striking distance at 9–1 in conference play, even despite a loss to the Zags in January. A big part of that has been the play of Landale, the Gaels’ 6' 11" junior center who has emerged as a star this season. Sixth on the team in scoring last season with 7.9 points per game, Landale leads the Gaels this year in scoring (16.8 ppg), rebounding (9.5 rpg) and blocks (1.1 bpg), all while shooting 60.9% from the floor and adding 2.1 assists per game. He’s recorded 10 double doubles so far.

Most of Landale’s offense comes at the rim, but he’s also hitting 50.8% of his two-point jumpers, according to hoop-math.com. When he went up against talented BYU center Eric Mika in an early January clash, Landale posted an impressive stat line of 26 points (on 11 of 13 shooting), nine rebounds, six assists and zero turnovers in the win. He’s leading the conference during WCC play with a 31.9% defensive-rebounding rate and is second in offensive-rebounding rate at 13.7%. Saint Mary’s will get one more crack at Gonzaga in the regular season on Feb. 11, and it will need a big game from Landale to pull the upset.

Stat of the Week: 8

Good luck getting a steal when the ball is in the hands of Cal Poly guard Kyle Toth. Through 21 games this season, the senior has committed just eight turnovers—and it’s not for a lack of playing time. Toth is averaging 29.4 minutes per game for the Mustangs, and has the lowest turnover rate in the country (4.9%), according to kenpom.com. Over his three-year career, which began back at Army in 2012–13, Toth has turned the ball over just 30 times—in 1,546 minutes of playing time.

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