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March 13, 2012
Get hip to the Zips
If Tuesday night's NIT opening-round game against Akron comes down to the final seconds, it's going to be difficult for Northwestern to figure out who to guard because it's doubtful that any team in the country spreads its scoring wealth as well as the Zips.
Akron doesn't have a star scorer like Northwestern's John Shurna to go to in crunch time. Coach Keith Dambrot's squad doesn't have a star scorer, period. Not a single player averages more than 10 points per game, but an amazing eight of them average 6 or more and nine of them average double-figure minutes.
While the fourth-seeded Wildcats come into the the matchup at Welsh-Ryan Arena (8 p.m. CT, ESPN2) with heavy hearts after feeling they were snubbed by the NCAA Selection Committee, the fifth-seeded Zips probably feel worse. Akron (22-11, 13-3 MAC) won the regular-season MAC championship only to have its Big Dance dreams dashed in the MAC tournament final, when third-seed Ohio knocked them off, 64-63.
The Zips trailed 64-61 when freshman point guard Alex Abreu went to the free-throw line with 3.1 seconds left. Abreu made the first shot, but his attempt at missing the second hit the back, the front, and the back of the rim again before dropping through. The scoreboard actually gave Akron two points for a game-tying tip-in basket before the replay showed that no one touched the ball.
Northwestern's small front line will be challenged by Akron 7-footer Zeke Marshall. The 235-pound sophomore leads the team with 10.2 points per game, but it's his ability as a shot blocker that will most concern the Wildcats. Marshall averaged 2.8 blocks per game, good for 13th in the country. He also recorded 5.3 rebounds per game, while 6-foot-8 Serbian forward Nikola Cvetinovic led the team with 5.4.
Marshall, Cvetinovic and Abreu each average 10 points per game to pace the egalitarian Zips.
An interesting game-within-the-game to watch will be on the three-point line. Northwestern (18-13, 8-10 Big Ten) relies heavily on the three-pointer in its Princeton offense, and Akron is very good at defending it.
The Wildcats' 9.0 triples per game ranks sixth in the country, and their 38.6-percent shooting from beyond the arc ranks 24th. Akron, meanwhile, allowed teams to hit just 29.7 percent from long-distance, 17th-best in the nation.
Something will have to give on Tuesday night. And the winner of that battle may determine the winner of the game.