AKRON, Ohio – If anybody knows what he’s in for, it’s Keith Dambrot.
VCU Coach Shaka Smart worked as an assistant under Dambrot from 2004-06, and the two remain close friends. Smart and Dambrot play styles that are similar, and as long as they’re not facing each other, they’ve been known to closely watch each other’s games and openly root for one another.
“The bad thing is, he could coach our team, and I could probably coach his team. That’s how much we know about each other,” Dambrot said Monday, ahead of 12th-seeded Akron’s Round of 64 NCAA Tournament game with the fifth-seeded Rams, which will be played Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Dambrot knows all about VCU’s full-court pressure, “Havoc”, and its prolific reputation for taking the ball away from the opposition. The Rams set a school record for steals this year and lead the country in that category. VCU (26-8) also leads the nation in turnover percentage for the second straight season.
“Look, I’ve watched them play more than any team in the country other than us,” Dambrot said. “They’re going to try to speed us up, make us try to make mistakes, and we’re going to try to throw the ball to our big guys and it’s as simple as that. It’s a simplistic game.”
This will be the fourth meeting between these two schools since 2008, all VCU victories. The last two VCU wins, in 2009 and 2011, came with Smart at the helm. Last season on Dec. 29, Darius Theus hit a baseline layup with seconds remaining in overtime to give the Rams a 76-75 victory in Akron. The Rams turned the Zips (26-6) over 20 times in that game and outscored them 25-14 on turnovers.
Dambrot believes this year’s Zips are the best team of his successful nine-year tenure in which he has amassed a 210-93 record, eight 20-win seasons and three NCAA bids. Akron won 19 straight games at one stage and earned the school’s first national ranking. But that was all before the indefinite suspension of starting point guard Alex Abreu. Abreu, who was suspended March 8 and will remain so on Thursday, was averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 assists per game, second-most in the MAC. His 1.9-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio was fourth in the league. In other words, Abreu was precisely the type of ball-handler the Zips could use against the nation’s most terrifying full-court press.
In the interim, Dambrot has turned to freshman Carmelo Betancourt, who was averaging fewer than two points and 10 minutes per game. After dropping its first game without Abreu, Akron topped Kent State and Ohio to win the MAC Tournament title.
In three starts in Abreu’s absence, Betancourt averaged 24.6 minutes, 3.7 points, 3.0 assists and 2.3 turnovers per game. The Zips averaged 13.7 turnovers in those games, effectively the same as their 13.6 turnover per game season average.
“I though he became way more confident as the weekend went,” Dambrot said of Betancourt’s play.
Akron’s 7-foot center, senior Zeke Marshall, a two-time MAC Defensive Player of the Year, provided 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks in a semifinal win over Kent State. He says he has been happy with his team’s answer to a difficult situation.
“We responded the way we needed to respond to win like we were supposed to,” said Marshall. “We rallied behind our team and played together, which showed in the OU and Kent Stage games.”
Marshall is confident the Zips can maintain that level of play against Smart and the Rams.
“We’re not going to have Alex Abreu, which is going to hurt on the ball handling side, but knowing Coach Dambrot and how he coaches, he’s going to have the game plan and need it to be able to bring the ball up the court and be able to handle the ball pressure,” he said.
It’s one thing to band together and play hard, it’s another thing to stop Havoc. Akron ranks 202nd nationally in offensive turnover percentage (20.4), while VCU forces turnovers at a higher rate than any Division I team. The Rams have lost to just one team (Wichita State) all season that currently ranks worse than 135th nationally in offensive turnover percentage.
But if any coach knows what’s coming Thursday, it’s probably Dambrot. Although Akron focuses more on the strength of its post players Marshall (13.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.7 bpg) and Demetrius Treadwell (11.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg), the Zips will press and run much like VCU for stretches.
“If they’re successful in speeding us up and turning us over and making us take bad shots, they’re going to win, and if we get post touches, we’re going to win, and that’s what I believe,” Dambrot said.
He would know.