MAC play means Q-and-A previews with Hustle Belt. We're already more familiar with our yearly opponents than, say, Delaware and Montana State, but I certainly haven't followed the 11-2 (!) Zips very closely this season. Many of the same names are back, but get a little further insight from Matt Hammond:
Bull Run: Coming into the season I had Akron pegged among the top tier in the conference but certainly not as the clear top dog they've established themselves through nonconference play. Other than the return of Noah Robotham, what's gone right for the Zips?
Matt Hammond: The ability to be dominant both inside and outside on offense is something that has really impressed through nonconference play. There are a lot of really good shooters on this team plus two good bigs in Pat Forsythe and Isaiah Johnson, who combine for 15 points and 15 rebounds per game while also being able to hold their own in the post defensively. With the ability to shoot the three at 38% and having a couple of beasts down low, there are always multiple options on offense--something Akron hasn't had in a couple of years.
BR: Along that line, who's a new name that Buffalo fans who dont follow the whole conference won't know from last year and how is he most dangerous?
MH: That's a tough question because outside of freshman point guard Josh Williams getting increased playing time as the season has progressed, the only player that UB fans may not be too familiar with is Robotham because he only faced the Bulls once last season. He's not a great defender but he has a high basketball IQ and shoots the three-ball very well. He's played only half of the nonconference schedule, so there are still some kinks for him to work out, especially at the defensive end.
BR: I'll discount Villanova because UB isn't on that level. What was Green Bay's winning game plan against Dambrot, and did Coppin State do something similar in their narrow loss?
MH: The Green Bay game was just ugly. It was a game that Akron really had no business losing. They played some of their best defense of the year, but committed so many stupid fouls that Green Bay shot just 54% at the line but shot 17 more free throws than Akron and won the game. Akron shot 35% and Green Bay shot 32% so I don't really think that they had a game plan that would neutralize the Zips' abilities, Akron just didn't capitalize on many of the open looks that the Phoenix were giving up. The Coppin State game was strange because Akron didn't shoot all that poorly and Coppin State went 26-70. Teams like Coppin State will try to beat you with athleticism and drive on you all night, and that's what they did.
BR: You've kind of alluded to this match up of styles in your own questions, but Buffalo has found success this year when getting the ball back out of the lane when opposing defenses collapse. How much help do Forsythe and Big Dog get down low, and how effective has it been at forcing bad shots?
MH: Forsythe and Big Dog are no Zeke Marshall, but having two huge bodies in the middle is the anchor of Akron's defense right now. They have one of the best three-point defenses in the country, but when your guards give up lanes so easily, the opponent won't focus on the perimeter. They are going to drive on you all night long and try to foul out the big guys and get easy buckets. I'd say they've been pretty effective as without big defensive presence down low, opponents would be scoring a lot more right now.
BR: Your turn for a prediction:
MH: I don't know what it is about Buffalo, but Akron always seems to get their best shot, especially in Alumni. Akron hasn't won there since 2009, and I won't pick Akron to win there again until they break that streak no matter what. I'll say
Thanks to Matt for taking some time and for his insights. I'll link the other half once it's published at Hustle Belt. You'll see in his post that I'm not as optimistic for the Bulls as he is, but it sure seems that Akron's defense will present opportunities for UB's preferred style on offense.