It’s not often that a basketball team coming off a 70-point win and whose biggest fan is the NBA’s best player invades Bud Walton Arena, but that will be the case on Wednesday night.
Akron (2-0) – fresh off a 100-30 win over Division III Hiram – will meet Arkansas (1-0) in a 7 p.m. contest that will be televised by the SEC Network and is part of the NIT Preseason Tournament.
The Zips, who have won over 20 games in each of the last 10 seasons under head coach Keith Dambot and been in the NCAA Tournament in 2009, 2011 and 2013, will then travel to face No. x Villanova on Sunday.
“The good thing is these games will be good for us to develop,” Dambot said. “We’ll see where we are. We’ll see how we respond when we get hit in the mouth. We’ll see how we respond when we play well. Then we have to make sure we keep continuing to grow. That’s the bottom line.”
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson knows his team faces a big challenge.
"We have a team coming in here that is really, really good,” Anderson said. “Akron is a team that returns four starters from a team that won 21 games. Coach Keith Dambrot does a tremendous job; I have always admired watching his team from afar.
“Their big guys are really skilled. It’s a team that has a lot of depth. It is going to a heck of a ball game. It is going to be a big time challenge for our team with the inexperience that we have. It could quite possibly be their experience versus our inexperience but it should be a great ball game as we start the preseason NIT.”
Dambot was the first high school head coach for NBA star LeBron James at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and they teamed up to win state championships in 2000 and 2001.
"You know, I just played for him," James said in an interview with the Northeast Ohio Media Group . "He's far too kind. He's an unbelievable coach and obviously you see what his Zip team does every year. They are in the high 20s in wins every single year in the MAC and he does a great job."
Akron is one of four schools that have a contract to wear James’ signature shoe along with Kentucky, Miami, Fla., and Ohio State.
James attends several Akron games a year and does TV commercials for the school.
“The connection with LeBron allows us to get players we wouldn't normally get," Dambrot said. "Just the presence of him in this community has helped our program become a top-level, major program.”
Akron and James are currently connected via his LeBron Family Foundation as well.
There are 200 seventh graders that will receive a free ride to Akron if they stay in James’ mentorship program.
"He's been a bigger part (of the program) than people realize," Dambot said. "Just having coached LeBron puts you in the mix with some guys. It's crazy but it's that touch he has."
James said his relationship with Dambrot goes beyond basketball.
"He is really the first guy that really not taught me how to play the game, but he showed me how to play it at a very high level. He was a college coach coaching a high school basketball team," James said. "He coached it, as I've heard, like a college program."
This Akron team is led by 6-10, 245-pound senior center Pat Forsythe, who actually started his career at West Virginia where he was a former teammate of current Razorback Keaton Miles.
Forsythe is averaging 10.5 points and 8.5 rebounds so far this season, with 12 points and 12 rebounds against Hiram, and is backed up by 6-10, 275-pound Isaiah Johnson, who had 14 rebounds on Monday night.
The Zips also start 6-6, 215-pound senior forward Reggie McAdams ((18.104.22.168), 6-10, 235-pound junior power forward Kwan Cheatum, Jr. (7.0, 7.0), 5-11 sophomore point guard Antino Jackson (9.0, 5.0 assists per game), and 6-2 freshman guard Josh Williams (5.5, 2.5).
Dambrot believes this could be his best team at Akron and that includes the one that went 26-7 in 2012-2013, got the program’s first Top 24 ranking nationally, made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and had a 19-game winning streak during the campaign.
"We've got a chance,'' Dambrot said.
Hiram did not score from the 15:47 mark to 6:24 in the first half and shot just 17 percent from the field on the night.
“I thought we were just okay defensively, as crazy as it sounds,” Zips coach Keith Dambrot said. “We have to play better than that. In fairness to our guys, when you get up you don’t emphasize that too much. "
Akron head coach Keith Dambot and his former high school player LeBron James