AKRON, Ohio – Palming a basketball in each hand, Zeke Marshall’s arms are outstretched across the entire face of a building next to the bustling student union. Akron’s 7-foot center towers above campus.
On a huge billboard overlooking the soccer field now covered in several inches of wind-drifted snow, Marshall’s gigantic image – his eyes fixed straight ahead, his face showing a nothing-but-business scowl – is accompanied by the slogan for this year’s basketball team: “Think Bigger.”
The Zips are doing just that.
“As long as we keep working hard and refining our skills, I feel like we should win the national championship,” the shot-swatting Marshall said without hesitation after Thursday’s morning practice. “We’re definitely talented enough.”
Riding a 14-game winning streak – the nation’s longest active one – and with a roster balanced in size, strength and experience, Akron, which has been resurrected the past decade under coach Keith Dambrot, just might be the next mid-major program to crash the big boys’ NCAA tournament party in March.
The Zips haven’t lost since Dec. 15, but they haven’t gained much attention outside Ohio and Mid-American Conference circles. That’s beginning to change.
“They haven’t been playing under my radar,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “I’ve been watching them all season. They’re a really good basketball team. They do a really good job offensive rebounding. They can defend in the post, they’ve got really good guards and Marshall is only getting better.”
This week, Akron received four votes in the AP’s Top 25 poll, a sign the streak along with an unbeaten record in the ultra-competitive MAC, haven’t gone unnoticed. There’s a buzz around the school, which has changed its image in recent years from a commuter’s destination with the addition of several new buildings and athletic facilities.
It also doesn’t hurt that the NBA’s best player calls Akron home.
LeBron James keeps close tabs on the Zips – and one of his high school coaches.
“I’m following them a lot,” said James, who won a state title playing for Dambrot at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. “They’re on top of the MAC and they’re playing some really, really good ball right now. I’m extremely happy for them. I wish I could get back home and get to a game soon. But they’re doing some good things and I hope it continues.”
James is a regular visitor in the summer, often playing pickup games at Rhodes Arena with Akron’s players, who embrace him like a teammate.
“It’s one of coolest things in the world,” said guard Brian Walsh, a transfer from Xavier. “For us, he’s the (Michael) Jordan of our generation and he’s coming out here in the summer, rolling up in his cars. He knows us by name and he’s playing open gym with us as just another guy.
“I don’t think too many schools in the country can say that they’re playing with arguably the best player ever to play the game. He brings a lot of attention to our program, and we appreciate everything he does for us.”
Dambrot has steadily built Akron, with an enrollment of just under 30,000 students, into a mid-major power that may be able to someday stand shoulder to shoulder with Gonzaga, Butler and Creighton. One of only seven schools to win at least 22 games in each of the past seven seasons, Akron made the NCAA tournament in 2009 and 2011, but the Zips were beaten in the first round.
Akron’s on a mission to go further.
Hence, the “Bigger” motto.
“I felt like that ‘Think Bigger’ was kind of a dual slogan in a sense that we’re big, our team is big and our goal has been to win in the NCAA tournament,” said Dambrot, who signed a 10-year contract extension at his alma mater in July. “The hard part is getting to the tournament, and I think if we can get there. We’re built better to win than we ever have been before.”
Akron certainly looks as if it can compete with the big boys. With Marshall, his 6-foot-11 freshman backup Pat Forsythe, 6-7 Demetrius “Tree” Treadwell, 6-7 Nick Harney and the 6-5 Walsh, the Zips are an imposing group.
“We’re very big in the gym,” point guard Alex Abreu said. “Except for me and coach D.”
What he may lack in size, Abreu, a 5-foot-10 junior who grew up in Puerto Rico and wasn’t sure which state Akron was in before enrolling, makes up in spirit.
For weeks, he’s been the one player unafraid to say the spotlight should be trained on he and his teammates, whose four losses all came on the road with two – to Oklahoma State and Coastal Carolina – in overtime and with Harney and Treadwell ineligible because of an NCAA violation.
Abreu, who averages 10.1 points, 6.0 assists and 2.3 rebounds, feels Akron’s deserving of recognition.
“We deserve more respect than we have gotten,” he said. “We have a wonderful coach and a wonderful program. Our fans are finally starting to come through, and I think it’s something the world should see.”
And the world will, so long as the Zips don’t stumble badly on their way to the finish.
The MAC hasn’t placed two teams in the NCAA tournament since 1999. The conference tourney winner gets the league’s automatic berth, which means the Zips, who have made the championship game in each of the past six years, may have to win the tourney title to get in.
Akron was snubbed of an at-large berth in 2006 despite winning 26 games. They lost the MAC championship by one point that season.
Dambrot knows Akron’s margin for error is slim, which is why the fiery coach was all over his players during practice. The way Dambrot was pushing the Zips, you would have thought they had lost 14 in a row.
But he wants more, as do Akron’s players who crave to create some madness of their own this March.
Last year, after losing to Ohio by one point in the MAC championship, the Zips watched as the Bobcats advanced to the national quarterfinals before losing to North Carolina.
“I almost cried myself to sleep every night,” Abreu said. “I was very proud of them for what they did. They did what we wanted to do and made some real noise. You always look back and say, ‘that could have been us.’ I have no doubt in my mind that this year that we can do it.”
And it starts with thinking big.
• AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.