Preseason predictions are rough. There seems to be one wild miss in every preseason poll. This year in football Central Michigan went to the MAC Championship game after being picked last in the MAC West. Last season in basketball Bowling Green was picked last in the MAC and finished second in the east.
It looks like the 2019-20 basketball season miss was Akron. The 2019-20 coaches poll released by the MAC has Akron finishing the season 5th in the MAC East. One of the few other publications that I can find that will post a MAC preseason prediction is Three Man Weave. They also had Akron as a fifth-place finisher in the East.
There seems to be a small consensus there. So how is that team first in the MAC according to Kenpom?
2018-19 Season and the Offseason
Entering the 2018-19 season, John Groce was starting his second year at Akron after being let go at Illinois. Before Illinois, he spent four years coaching at Ohio. He was hired by Illinois after taking Ohio on a run to the Sweet Sixteen.
The year didn’t turn out the best for the Zips. They finished 8-10 in conference games and 17-16 overall. It’s far from failure but it also doesn’t get anyone to think the Zips are primed for a jump.
I know not everyone loves analytics or uses them to judge a team, but the underlying numbers were good for that season. They finished 108th in Kenpom, good for fourth in the MAC, despite being fourth in the division by win-loss record. The Kenpom luck rating is the difference between the expected win percentage and the actual win percentage. Akron ranked 344 out of 353 teams in luck. Maybe they should’ve looked primed for a jump.
Then came the offseason. The top scorer, guard Daniel Utomi, transferred to USC. Guard Jimond Ivey graduated and he was a starter. A bench player, forward Emmanuel Olojakpoke, contributed ten minutes a game and took his talents to Utah Valley. It’s not exactly devastating but it would feel better if almost all of the scoring production returned.
Shooting percentages can fix almost anything
So with the perception of a down year, and a couple highly productive players leaving, the play improved.
John Groce definitely has a reputation for strong defensive teams. The MAC is squarely a mid-major so rankings in the top 100 are usually going to put a team towards the top of the league. His Ohio defense in the 2012 Sweet Sixteen run was 32nd nationally. His first year at Akron was rough, but since has produced a 22nd rank, and currently an 81st defense.
If the defense was even better last season, the offense must have made a jump. It sure did. It went from 259th to 104th. It’s obvious even in traditional stats. The most important improvements are in every single shooting percentage. Regular shooting percentage increased 3%, which doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s very significant. More importantly, the three-point percentage increased from 32% to 36.7%. It turns into another 8 points per game.
Loren Cristian Jackson and Tyler Cheese have both progressed from the previous year. Both average more points per game than Daniel Utomi did last season. Xeyrius Williams is a transfer from Dayton and he is having the best season of his college career. A pair of freshmen, Ali Ali and Greg Tribble see action in every game. Freshmen and transfers are always hard to project.
Another change I’ve noticed is in the shot distribution. They have decreased their three-point shooting. I assume this means they get better shots running the offense this season. The Zips are settling for fewer threes, and the quality of shots is reflected by the higher shooting percentages.
Finishing the season
Through the rest of the season, I expect Akron to continue to play defense at a high level. Provided that injury is avoided, the defensive plans should continue to be solid and the energy should be there.
The shooting is the real wild card. Shooting can come and go but if they keep working for a good shot the can keep it up. If they can, the sky is the limit for the Zips. Shocker of the year, high-level offense and high-level defense can lead to a lot of wins.
Currently, in the NCAA NET Rankings, Akron is 51st despite no quadrant one or two wins. They will be a quadrant one game when teams go to Akron if they can hang in the top 75. The NET Rankings are pretty new, but I don’t think most people would realize that.
Conference play and the seeding for the tournament really comes down to holding serve at home, and stealing as many as possible on the road. With a road already against a decent Eastern Michigan team, they get another game against Eastern, Toledo, and Ball State all at home. It’s a balanced schedule against the East the rest of the way.
Akron has a favorable schedule, they’ve maintained the defensive effectiveness, and made huge strides on offense. John Groce and the Zips can set a realistic goal to represent the MAC in the NCAA tournament this season.