A King's touch adds a dose of royalty to Akron's program
AKRON, Ohio -- The four LeBron James banners hanging over James A. Rhodes Arena's court at the University of Akron were on loan for the James' Nike-sponsored skills academy the first week of July.
Akron coach Keith Dambrot joked that maybe he should keep them up for the season.But he's not really kidding. James' shadow is hanging -- figuratively and literally -- over the Akron program in a way that Dambrot hopes will only loom larger. The NBA All-Star, two-time Olympian and Akron native never attended a class at Akron or any other university. But he has adopted his hometown school as his alma mater so much so that the Zips are beginning to benefit in a variety of ways.
He did the past two seasons, just not enough to get into the NCAA tournament.Two years ago, the Zips lost to Miami (Ohio) in the MAC final by one point. The Zips finished the season 26-7 (13-3 MAC East), and didn't even make the NIT. This past March, Akron lost to rival Kent State in the MAC tournament final, and did get an NIT bid. The Zips won at Florida State before losing at UMass in the second round to finish 24-11. Dambrot is entering his fifth season as head coach after serving as an assistant for three seasons under Dan Hipsher. Scheduling became a bit easier within the past year, when the administration gave him $160,000 to buy three guaranteed games, something that a number of MAC teams can't afford. Teams at this level usually have to do only home-and-home series and can't afford to buy a team for a home game without a return. Getting the James connection going is one step and winning postseason games continues the climb to prominence. But actually winning the MAC tournament is a must because the MAC hasn't sent two teams to the NCAA tournament since 1999. Akron hasn't been since 1986 -- their only tournament appearance -- when Bob Huggins was coach and the Zips were in the Ohio Valley Conference. It will be tough to make the Big Dance next season because Akron will have eight freshmen (including six true freshmen) on the roster. The Zips also lost their top three scorers from last season. "We've positioned ourselves to be a consistent winner, but the first thing we have to do is get in the NCAA tournament," Dambrot said. "This will be the true test for us with the freshmen. Can we win this year? If we can, then we have a great chance to propel instead of taking a step back. I believe we did the right thing by going with young kids to maintain this. We may not be as good, but we still will win our share."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.