Team preview: Akron

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Akron coach Keith Dambrot likened his team's loss to Toledo in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament last March to getting "run over by a truck."

A MAC truck, we're guessing. But rather than wallow in misery after the 77-69 thumping, Dambrot's resilient team, having earned a new lease on its postseason life with an NIT bid, bounced back quickly. In the first round the Zips took out Temple for the first postseason victory in Akron history.

"We preach to our players getting on to the next play or the next game," Dambrot said. "The Temple win was a tribute to our players. That's what you have to do to be a successful."

What the Zips have been able to achieve in Dambrot's first two seasons (42-20) as head coach is nothing short of remarkable. To rally back after a crushing loss and to beat Temple in overtime, 80-73, in Philadelphia, was a good sign for this team heading into the 2006-07 season.

It was a bizarre game for Temple with John Chaney absent from his final game as head coach while tending to his wife's health, and Owls' leading scorer Mardy Collins crashing to the floor with 30 seconds left, an injury that delayed the end of the game 20 minutes.

"In some ways, it's probably a bigger achievement than winning the MAC Championship," Dambrot said about the NIT win.

A Collins jumper with 35 ticks left in regulation gave Temple a 66-64 cushion, but Akron guard Dru Joyce banked in an eight-foot runner with nine seconds to play to force overtime.

Two days later, Creighton ended Akron's season, 71-60, in Omaha.

That loss took nothing away from the impressive job Dambrot has done rebuilding this program. Some have questioned his decision to play defenders over scorers, but he's obviously got a system that works.

"We are a fast-paced team that stresses defense," Dambrot said. "You better play good defense or you are not going to win. That's all we do [defensive work] in the preseason. We keep it simple so I don't get confused."

Once again last season, the Zips overcame personnel issues. Akron seems to always be driving uphill, with Dambrot avoiding the potholes and squeezing the most out of his roster. It began with guard Nick Dials, an Ohio State transfer, having to overcome a summertime ACL tear to appear in all 33 games (31 starts).

"It [was] one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen," said Dambrot about Dials' recovery.

Then touted freshman swing player Jimmy Conyers became ineligible when his transcript was judged invalid. Next, center Jeremiah Wood, a member of the MAC All-Freshman Team in 2004, opted for a medical red-shirt before the team's first game rather than rush back after ACL surgery on his right knee.

He sustained the injury Jan. 2, 2005, playing at home against Ohio, 10 games into his sophomore season.

"We didn't feel like he was in great condition," Dambrot said. "It's just that he's a big guy and sometimes it takes big guys a little bit longer [to come back]."

Then between semesters, sophomore three-point shooter Bubba Walther, a MAC All-Freshman pick in 2005, decided to transfer to Ohio University.

Undeterred, the Zips pushed forward and finished 14-4 in the MAC and 23-10 overall. Three seniors completed their eligibility last season, with the biggest losses being 6-9, 200-pound Rob Preston (8.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.2 bpg) and 1,000-point scorer Darryl Peterson. Peterson's ability to stretch opposing defenses with his passing and shooting and his length inside defensively will be missed.

Wood's red-shirt may have a blessing in disguise.

"It spread us out [roster wise]," Dambrot said.