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January 24, 2014

Chippewas host first-place Zips on Saturday

Here's the good news: Central Michigan is coming off their best offensive performance of this conference season. At Miami on Wednesday night, the Chippewas averaged 1.18 points-per-possession on their way to 80 points against the RedHawks. That is their best per-possession output of MAC play, by a large margin, and their best offensive performance since annihilating Marygrove on January 3. CMU shot the ball above 50 percent on two-point shots and made 41.9 percent of their three-point attempts, won the rebounding battle and had fewer turnovers than Miami. Five Chippewas scored in double figures, including high-scorer Chris Fowler, who had 19 points. A sixth Chippewa, Blake Hibbitts almost gone into double-digits with nine points.

Now for the bad news: the Chippewas lost because they gave up 1.26 points-per-possession to Miami, their worst per-possession defensive output of conference play. Along with the 1.26 point-per-possession they allowed to Pepperdine on November 16, it is the second-worst defensive performance of the season (only 1.32 at Jacksonville State is worse). Miami had their way inside, making 25 of their 40 two-point shots (62.5 percent). Potential All-MAC big man Will Felder made 10 of his 13 two-point attempts. Junior guard Will Sullivan scored 20 points on 10 shots, hitting 5-of-6 two-points shots and going 7-of-7 at the free throw line.

Next up for CMU is a home game against back-to-back defending MAC champion Akron. The Zips spent all of last season and the majority of the one before it ranked in the KenPom top 100. After starting this year at No. 108, they climbed back into the top 100 and stayed there for most of December before falling out after back-to-back losses to No. 146 South Carolina. Right now, they are ranked 130th on KenPom and have a 12-6 record against a very average schedule. They don't have any bad losses and three of their five losses are to teams ranked in the top 70 teams, including a loss at No. 58 St. Mary's and another loss at No. 20 Iowa State. Their best non-conference wins were over No. 95 Cleveland State (road) and No. 111 Oregon State (neutral site). Akron is 4-1 in MAC play, with road wins at No. 83 Ohio and No. 112 Eastern Michigan. Their only loss was a 14-point defeat at No. 67 Toledo, the highest-ranked team in the conference.

The Zips have the fifth-most efficient offense in the conference and the sixth-most efficient defense. Akron is playing at a slower pace than last year, with the 230th-ranked tempo, and has dealt with the loss of All-MAC big man Zeke Marshall, point guard Alex Abreu and wing Brian Walsh. However, with head coach (and former CMU head coach) Keith Dambrot in his 10th year at the helm, there is a lot of continuity in Akron.

What the Zips do best on offense is what the same thing that they've been good at for a while: rebound the basketball. Led by senior power forwards Demetrius Treadwell, who was on the All-MAC second team last year, and Nick Harney, as well as sophomore center Pat Forsythe, Akron is 27th in the nation and first in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage. What they struggle at is taking care of the basketball, ranked 301st in offensive turnover percentage. The Zips are an average shooting team and do a decent job getting to the free throw line, but is one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country. They have only made 62.0 percent of their attempts from the charity stripe, which is 340th in the country and worst in the conference. Backup small forward Quincy Diggs is the only player on the roster with a free throw percentage over 70 percent, but just barely, at 70.7 percent.

The offense goes through Treadwell and sixth man Diggs. Both get a bunch of touches and average over 12 points-per-game, while no other Zips average anything over 9.0 ppg. Harney gets a lot of touches when he is on the floor, but averages 8-12 minutes less than the other two, so he only scores 8.1 ppg. The most efficient players are small forward Reggie McAdams and backup wing Jake Kretzer, but their usage rates are 12.6 percent and 16.9 percent, while Treadwell, Diggs and Harney all have a rate north of 23 percent. Diggs has also been able to create for others, with the 11th-highest assist rate in the MAC.

Defensively, the Zips run mostly man-to-man defense and are good at defending two-point shooting, only allowing teams to make 45.0 percent of their two-point shots. Forsythe has played a big role in this, stepping in admirably for Marshall, who had the sixth-best block rate in the nation last year. Forsythe isn't at that level yet, but is eighth in the MAC right now. Opponents have been average behind the three-point line, hitting 34.5 percent of their three-point shots. They've been slightly above-average at creating turnovers and at keeping opponents off the free throw line. Diggs has been a big part of forcing turnovers, with the fifth-best steal percentage in the conference. Surprisingly, the weakest part of their defense has been their rebounding, ranked 275th in the country. Treadwell and Diggs have been solid on the defensive boards, but the rest of the roster hasn't done much.

This is still a deep, talented team with great size. They have the best record in the MAC East and are tied with Toledo for the best record in conference play. KenPom has Akron projected for a final MAC record of 12-6, while he has CMU projected for a 4-14 finish. These are two teams at completely different points in their program. The Zips are an established program and are consistently one of the best teams in the conference, while the Chippewas are still firmly in rebuilding mode. Akron needs a win to stay one game ahead of the logjam in the East (four teams with a 3-2 record). CMU needs a win to get on the board in conference play and to break up what has been a brutal month of January. Pomeroy projects a 73-68 Akron victory in a 65-possession game and gives CMU a 31-percent chance at pulling off the upset.

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