- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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AKRON, Ohio -- Up in the four corners of Rhodes Arena loom four gigantic photo murals, each honoring one of the University of Akron's four greatest head coaches. In the east corner is Bob Huggins, forever youthful and smiling, leading the Zips to the 1986 NCAA Tournament. Across from him is Russ Beich, the school's winningest coach with 286 victories. Two bench bosses who led the school to Division II title games in 1964 and 1972 -- Tony Laterza and Wyatt Webb, respectively -- have walls to themselves as well.
"This is going to sound totally corny," current Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. "I come in here sometimes and look up at them. I just daydream, thinking about all the wins they got, all the NCAA and NIT teams they coached."
Dambrot coached the 2006-07 Akron team to 26 wins, the most the school has earned in its quarter-century of Division I play. But the national postseason remained just a daydream. Miami (Ohio) rallied from a nine-point, second-half deficit to beat Akron for the MAC championship, and the collapse doomed the Zips' at-large candidacy. An hour after the NCAA brackets were officially announced, the Zips discovered the newly shrunk 32-team NIT didn't have a place for them either. Miami backup guard Doug Penno's stunning, buzzer-beating 3 had abruptly ended the college careers of power forward Romeo Travis and point guard Dru Joyce.
"That one moment didn't define my four years here," Joyce said Wednesday. "Our team accomplished great things. We won a lot of games and brought a lot of pride to the city of Akron."
Joyce, now playing professionally in Germany, came back to his proud hometown for the holidays. Like 2007 MAC Player of the Year Travis, Joyce is a local boy Dambrot previously coached to two Ohio state championships at St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School (along with college-skipping Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James).
On Wednesday, Joyce stopped by Rhodes to watch his old teammates destroy visiting MEAC member North Carolina A&T, 88-70. The Zips, who returned three starters and sixth man Cedrick Middleton from the 26-win club, easily earned their eighth win of the young season.
Like it was for last season's zapped Zips, however, a lack of quality opponents has been a major issue. Dambrot said that was the reason he was given for his team's exclusion from the 2007 NIT, and a No. 67 ranking in the RPI hid the 178th-strongest schedule. This season's version has cruised against teams from South Carolina-Upstate, North Carolina Central and Binghamton, but it has had no chances to cut its teeth against top competition.
According to the RPI formula, only 20 of the 341 Division I teams have played weaker schedules this season than Akron, and the Zips have not played a nonconference game against a member of the Big Six power leagues since 2005-06. That was the season Akron beat Mississippi State and lost to Clemson at the San Juan Shootout, was invited to the NIT, and won its first-round game at Temple.
"I'd love to play against the big schools; I think we could definitely compete," said senior guard Nick Dials, who scored 21 points Wednesday and has averaged 13.1 points per game so far. "Our league has shown it can compete with anyone in the country. We tried to get big schools on our schedule, but nobody wanted to come here and play us in Akron. We don't want to just have one game on the road; we want to find teams who will come into our place. They don't want to do that, I guess."
It's not that a school whose mascot is a kangaroo and whose slogan is "Fear the Roo" is living in fear itself, bounding away from guarantee-game opportunities at larger schools. Akron is one of the very few MAC schools that can afford to pay opponents, and it was on the purchasing end of three guarantee games in 2007-08 (including NC Central and A&T). And rarer still was the opportunity to buy a game with a Mountain West school. Wyoming received $50,000 to travel to Akron for a Dec. 1 contest, a 96-71 Zips victory.
"We're trying to grow this program," Dambrot said in his office after Wednesday's game. "And I believe you do that with wins."
Dambrot has settled on two key rules in his attempt to build Akron basketball into a MAC power and earn a spot on the wall among the Zips' coaching heroes: 1. No money-games at power-conference schools, which he's avoided completely since a 111-85 thrashing at Louisville on Dec. 10, 2005; 2. No risky chemistry experiments with junior-college transfers, something he briefly dabbled with during a short stint as Central Michigan's coach in the early 1990s.
"It's such a relief," Dambrot said of his decision to stick with four-year players. "We don't get calls in the middle of the night anymore."
"Once we got a call at 2 a.m.," his wife, Donna, chimed in. "One of the players had stolen a candy bar from a 7-Eleven."
And prep recruiting is a lot easier, thanks to Dambrot's sweet association with a certain NBA superstar. Even though LeBron James was ready for the pros straight out of high school, his presence is very much felt at the University of Akron. Not only does he regularly attend games at Rhodes Arena, but he also holds his summer camps on Akron's campus and brings in fellow NBA players for open-gym practices during the offseason.
"Having the best player in the NBA around has been the great equalizer for us," James' high school coach said of the LeBron Effect. "He's been wonderful for our program. At the camps, the kids always ask him where he would have gone to college. If I'm in the gym, he'll always look over at me, smile, and say, 'Akron.'
"I'm definitely not shy about selling our association to LeBron to recruits. I'd love to put a big poster up of him up in the lobby."
Until then, the only huge posters at Rhodes Arena are of the four Akron coaching legends on the gym walls, who gaze upon Dambrot and the current Zips generation from above.
"I look up there sometimes, and it pains me," Dambrot said. "All I see up there are NCAA, NIT, wins, wins, wins. The game has changed so much since they were here. Our challenges are so much greater. Our group hasn't built on that tradition yet, and we're just trying to figure out how best to do that."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.