Dambrot happy he chose to stay at Akron

John Harris
| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Akron coach Keith Dambrot knew what he was doing when he ntwice turned down offers from Duquesne.

Akron owned the nation's longest winning streak this season — 17 in a row after Saturday's win against Bowling Green. Duquesne, meanwhile, snapped an 11-game losing streak Thursday, the Dukes' first win since before Christmas.

When reminded of his decision to remain at his alma mater, Dambrot — whose father played basketball at Duquesne in the 1950s — offered a diplomatic yet honest explanation.

“You've got to be smart in life,” Dambrot said Tuesday. “We had a good roster coming back, and this is a good situation for me, being from here. You can't make decisions based on money, that's for sure.”

Dambrot's son, Robby, recently signed with Akron's nationally ranked soccer program.

“My wife told me I'm locked in now, so you'd better not have your suitcase out,” said Dambrot, who signed a new 10-year contract in July.

Regarding the continuing struggles at Duquesne, which hasn't played in the NCAA Tournament since 1977, Dambrot said, “It's going to take time with the roster situation they had (losing recruits and the team's best player, T.J. McConnell, following last season). But I like their coach (first-year coach Jim Ferry). I think he's going to do a good job. I like the school, too. They've just got to stay the course.”

Dambrot applied the same message to his team following a 4-4 start highlighted by losses against No. 17 Oklahoma State, Detroit and Creighton. A long winning streak ensued. Approaching the stretch run of the regular season, Akron has emerged as the class of the Mid-American Conference.

“We've played some really good games, and we've played some games where we've had some struggles offensively. But overall, we share the basketball and play good defense every single night,” said Dambrot, who has posted seven consecutive 20-win seasons.

“We've been down 20 points at home to Buffalo and won. We've been down 11 points on the road to Kent State and won. We were down nine points at Miami and won. Our guys are resilient. Now, we've got to play a little more consistently.”

Akron senior center Zeke Marshall, by way of McKeesport, is a familiar name to Western Pennsylvania basketball fans. Marshall spurned an offer from Pitt, and Dambrot believes the light bulb finally flicked on.

Marshall — college basketball's career leader in blocks among active players — leads Akron in scoring, field-goal percentage and blocks and is second in rebounds this season. He's finally tapped into the potential that Dambrot has been emphasizing for years.

“He spent a lot of time in the gym. Not all the way there yet, but getting better and better,” Dambrot said of Marshall, who's listed at 7-0, 235 pounds. “He's got a good work ethic now. He understands what he has to do to be a pro. He's strong; he did more pull-ups than anybody on our team. He can bench press over 300 pounds. He's got good shooting touch. He just understands the game better.

“More importantly, he's matured as a man. He doesn't let things bother him as easily. Sometimes, guys don't realize how good they really are. Finally, he started to realize, ‘I'm pretty good. I need to be more demanding of myself.'”

Despite boasting one of the best records in Division I this season, Akron's margin for error is slim. The MAC hasn't sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament since 1999. Last year, Akron lost to Ohio in the MAC tournament finals and didn't make the NCAAs despite 22 victories.

“Everybody around the country plays in leagues where teams are similar to some extent,” Dambrot said. “Pitt has the luxury of being able to lose conference games. We don't have that luxury. We've got to go 15-1 or 16-0, win our league and win our conference tournament.”

Akron has made two NCAA appearances under Dambrot (2009, 2011). He believes this team is his best to date.

“The hardest part for us is getting in the NCAA Tournament,” Dambrot said. “The other two (tournament) teams we had were pretty small. If we get in the tournament and get the right draw, we can be a handful.”

Reversing a trend

Indiana ended a streak of five consecutive weeks with a new No. 1 team in college basketball. The Hoosiers defeated then-No. 10 Ohio State three days after losing at Illinois on a last-second basket to remain the top-ranked team two weeks in a row.

“They were really disappointed (following the Illinois loss),” Indiana coach Crean said on his weekly conference call. “Instead of carrying that disappointment into a woe-is-me mentality, they really did (figure) how to get better.”

Mindful of his players' inability to close out the Illinois game while being cognizant that four of the top five teams in the polls lost last week, Crean reminded his players not to take their No. 1 ranking lightly.

“The approach for Illinois was good,” Crean said. “It was just how we didn't finish it off. I think there was a different level of a sense of urgency because of the way we didn't finish it off, combined with the fact we played a team (Ohio State) that is outstanding, and we had not won in that building.”

The Ohio State win was Indiana's first against a conference opponent ranked in the top 10 since 1993. It also was the Hoosiers' first road win against a top 10 team in 13 years.

Around the country

Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel, lost for the season with a torn ACL, led the Southeastern Conference in blocks and ranked second in rebounds at the time of his injury last week. Remarkably, the 6-10 Noel also ranked fifth in the league in steals. Although not a big scorer, Noel's uncanny athleticism for a player his size had elevated him as the projected No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. ... Detroit guard Ray McCallum became the first player since Connecticut's Ben Gordon in December 2003 with at least 16 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and four steals in a recent game against Cleveland State. ... North Carolina sophomore James Michael McAdoo's father is the second cousin of Hall of Fame basketball player Bob McAdoo, a current Miami Heat assistant who also played at North Carolina. McAdoo's parents, Ronnie and Janet, both played basketball at Old Dominion. Older sister Kelsey played basketball at Charlotte.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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