Akron coach Keith Dambrot yells to his players in a game earlier this season. With the nation's longest winning streak, a dominant center with NBA potential, the fiery Dambrot and LeBron James as a supporter, Akron could become the next mid-major to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. / Mark Duncan, AP
After the Miami Heat's heart-wrenching loss in the 2011 NBA Finals, a demoralized LeBron James knew what he had to do to get better and win his first championship.
He went back to square one.
James returned to his hometown in Akron, Ohio, and reunited with his former coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, Keith Dambrot, the coach at the University of Akron since 2004.
"I told him what he already knew," Dambrot said of his "heart-to-heart" advice to James that summer. "I said he needed to be as coachable as possible, he needed to get back to the basics. But most of all, he needed to clear his head. I told him to be true to himself.
"I said, 'You're not the golden child anymore; people don't like you. Well who cares, if you can look yourself in the mirror and say you're a good guy.' It was hard for me to see so many people hate him. He made a business decision. LeBron is the most team-oriented player I've coached, and he's such a great person."
James was spotted courtside cheering on the Miami (Fla.) basketball team this month, but he's pulled for another college team for years.
Dambrot's Akron Zips (22-4, 12-0 Mid-American Conference) own the nation's longest winning streak with 18 consecutive victories. On Monday, No. 24 Akron jumped into the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll for the first time since moving to Division I in the 1980-81 season.
"They're on an unbelievable streak right now," James said. "One thing about coach (Dambrot) is he maximizes talent that he has by putting that belief in guys who may not feel like they can do some of the things they can do. That's always something he did while we were in high school. He's unbelievable with them."
James, the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft with the Cleveland Cavaliers, never played college basketball. But his impact is felt in the Akron community, and Dambrot credited James for the basketball program's resurgence.
"Listen, our program would not be what it is today if it wasn't for LeBron James," said Dambrot, who has deep Akron roots, as his mother was a professor at the school. "When I walk into recruits' homes and they know I coached LeBron, they trust I know what I'm talking about. He plays in the summer at Akron, he was here a ton during the (NBA) lockout. And there's no question LeBron helped me become a better coach. I always held him to the highest standard, and I still do today."
James might always steal the headline in Akron, but the Zips deserve attention for becoming the first Mid-American team to make the coaches poll during the regular season in exactly five years. Akron hasn't lost since mid-December and is still undefeated in the MAC heading into Wednesday's road clash against second-place Ohio (20-7, 11-1), a Sweet 16 finisher in last year's NCAA tournament.
With the nation's longest winning streak and James as a supporter, Akron has the ingredients to become the next mid-major to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
"Our goal isn't just to get to the NCAA tournament, it's to win the whole thing," said confident center Zeke Marshall, a dominant 7-footer with NBA potential. "I don't want to say we could be a Cinderella team because I think we're as talented as some of the top teams. The only difference is that those teams like Duke are high majors. Talent-wise, if you look at our lineup, we have on of the biggest in the country. Our biggest (hurdle) this season is making sure we stay hungry."
Marshall, averaging 12.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game, provides the Zips with an intimidating paint presence, and Zambrot thinks his team can compete with major BCS-level schools because of Marshall's "ability to change the game on both sides of the floor."
"The biggest difference with Zeke this season has been his maturity as a person," Dambrot said of Marshall, who had five blocks in Akron's 68-53 BracketBusters win over North Dakota State last Friday. "He could barely bench (press) the bar when he first got here. Now he can bench over 300 pounds. His biggest issue has been realizing how good he really is. I think a lot of (NBA) teams will be surprised in individual workouts when they see what he could blossom into."
Dambrot has guided the Zips to postseason tournaments in six of the past eight seasons. He isn't shy in acknowledging this to be his best team yet. Complementing Marshall is junior forward Demetrius Treadwell, the team's top rebounder with 7.7 boards a game, while 5-10 point guard Alex Abreu pilots the offense with 9.8 points and 5.9 assists a game.
There's no denying Akron has NCAA tournament potential, but if it fails to win the MAC tournament, its at-large bid hopes are in question despite a résumé that features an RPI of 48.
"It's an interesting debate because we know how good we are, but America doesn't," Dambrot said. "If (the NCAA committee) really studies what happened to us, they'll see that when we lost games during the non-conference schedule, we were dealing with injuries that postponed our development. We haven't lost in two months and I don't even think we're playing our best basketball yet. If we get into (the NCAA tournament), I don't think we'll get bullied like a lot of other mid-majors will because we have the size and strength to compete with some of the top teams."
Contributing: Jeff Zillgitt
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
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