SCOUTING THE ZIPS
Akron's strength up front starts with forward Quincy Diggs, a 6-6 junior who is averaging 11.2 points per game. Diggs is just enough of a threat outside to have to be covered from beyond the arc, but he does more of his damage in the mid-range and close to the rim. He also converts his free throw changes, averaging just less than 77% from the line. Diggs gets room to operate due to the presence of Zeke Marshall and Nikola Cvetinovic, who are the most productive bigs the Mountaineers have faced to date, Cvetinovic (6-8) averages 9.8 ppg and 5.4 rpg, and is complemented by seven-footer Marshall, who not only tosses in 9.0 ppg but also has 16 blocked shots on the year.
As if that wasn't enough punch on the front line, the Zips also have 6-7 forward Nick Harney coming off the bench, averaging 10.6 ppg in just less than 19 minutes of action per contest. Harney makes the most of his chances, hitting 58% from the field. Even more support is provided by Demetrius Treadwell (6.6 ppg) and Chauncey Gilliam (3.2 ppg). With six players averaging at least 12.2 minutes per game, the Zips can wear down teams in the opposing front court with a succession of substitutions, any of whom are capable of scoring.
The guard spot is not nearly as deep, as the Zips have several issues to contend with. Alex Abreu, who started the first four games at point guard, has been suspended, and is not expected to make the trip to Morgantown. Fellow guard Brian Walsh (8.8 ppg) is capable of handling the point, but has a hip injury that is hampering his mobility. He did not start any of Akron's five games to date, and may not have the mobility to man the point position agaisnt WVU. The good news for the Zips is senior sniper Bret McClanahan, a native of Nitro, W. Va.,who is hitting nearly half of his three-point attempts (9.0 ppg). He can't be left alone when the ball goes inside, as he'll take advantage with a quick trey.
The Zips are expected to move Diggs to the point position and run their offense through him, as they did in their last game against Detroit. Akron has no other guards with much experience on the roster. Deji Ibitayo would be the other option at point, but he has played in just two games, averaging 8.5 minutes per outing.
Even with the suspension of Abreu, Akron is still a legitimate Top 25 threat, even though they aren't receiving any votes yet. The Zips dealt #24 Mississippi State its only loss of the season to date, and are viewed as the chief threat to MAC kingpin Kent State in the race for this year's title.
In order to avoid its second loss of the season to a MAC team, West Virginia must figure out a way to neutralize, or at least battle, Akron's frontcourt. Center Deniz Kilicli will finally be matched up with some players of his own size, and he will have to win the fight against Marshall if WVU is to hold its own in the lane. Pay particular attention when Kilicli gets the ball in the post, as he needs to make strong moves and not shoot fadeaways and hooks that will allow Marshall to extend his arms and block shots. He needs to play aggressively and use his size and strength to get an edge inside.
WVU 3-1, 0-0
Akron 3-2, 0-0
WVU - 175
Akron - 112
Even if WVU wins that battle, there are lots of other challenges on the front line. Kevin Jones will, as usual, give his all on both ends of the court, but WVU will have to play good defense against more than just one or two scorers in order to win. Off the bench, forward Aaron Brown could play a vital role, as his strength and defensive ability will likely be needed to combat the Zips' frontcourt firepower.
There are also some intriguing items to watch in the back court. With Akron low on guard personnel, look for WVU to pressure the ball even more than normal. Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds can be expected to test Diggs and McClanahan as soon as the ball is inbounded, and try to force early turnovers. Akron might also be hard pressed to handle the speed of the WVU guard duo, so it won't be a surprise to see them trying to break the Akron back court down off the dribble.
West Virginia will also have to give its interior defenders help in keeping the ball out of the post. The guards can't leave McClanahan alone, but they need to work hard to nor allow open, easy passing lanes into the post. They must help make the Akron centers and big forwards move to get the ball, and not let them catch the ball in their preferred positions. That works in tandem with WVU's inside defenders, who can't allow their opponents to set up close to the rim and catch the ball deep in the lane. It's another in a series of defensive lessons that West Virginia's newcomers have to learn, and a play phase that will have a big impact ont he outcome of the game.
• The Zips are the only team in the
Mid-American Conference to have won 20-plus
games the last six seasons. They are only one of 20 teams in NCAA Division I to achieve that milestone.
* * *
With three 20-point games in WVU's first four outings this year, Kevin Jones has moved into a tie with Truck Bryant in career games over that mark. Both have scored more than 20 points seven times in a Mountaineer uniform.
* * *
Akron forward Nikola Cvetinovic was part of the team that represented Serbia at the World University games in China. Serbia repeated as champion of the games, defeating Canada in the final. Cvetinovic averaged 4.3 points and 3.7 rebounds for his team.
* * *
West Virginia has made 22 of its 67 three-point attempts this year. Its opponents have exactly duplicated those numbers.
* * *
Akron, fueled by its front line, is shooting better than 50% from the field. West Virginia, which has improved a bit defensively since the start of the season, is allowing opponents just a 40.4% success rate. The team that most closely matches its season average will be in good position to get its fourth win of the season.