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Friday, August 15
Zips try to retake Akron from LeBron

By Andy Katz

The University of Akron might be able to sell out Rhodes Arena next season -- even without LeBron James.

The Zips, not the Irish of St. Vincent-St. Mary High, should be the talk of the Ohio city for the first time in the two years since James' name dominated the hoop headlines.

"We could be the story in Akron," said Akron coach Dan Hipsher. "But LeBron didn't go too far. He's in Cleveland just up the road."

But the fans paying to see James weren't all showing up for the Zips. James' games were sold out. Akron averaged nearly 1,500 fewer fans a game.

That should change if the Zips live up to their potential of being the team to beat in the MAC and ultimately the mid-major Cinderella of choice next season.

Gonzaga is one of the rare small schools able to make the NCAA Tournament consistently. But conferences like the MAC and Horizon League, two of the deepest and most competitive mid-major leagues the past three years, traditionally have different teams rotating at the top.

This should be Akron's turn, as the Zips try to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1986.

"They're the most talented team in the league, by far," Ohio coach Tim O'Shea said.

"Our talent is really good," Hipsher said.

The key to being the next Butler, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Creighton, Southern Illinois or Kent State is to have senior guards.

Akron does.

Seniors Johnny Hollingsworth and Derrick Tarver averaged a combined 38.1 points a game overall (37.3 points in MAC games). The only better tandem was Central Michigan's Chris Kaman and Mike Manciel. Kaman left after his junior season and was the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft. Manciel was a senior.

Usually, at least one player must have pro potential. Three MAC players - Kaman, Ohio's Brandon Hunter and Ball State's Theron Smith - received guaranteed contracts in the NBA. Hollingsworth and Tarver are unlikely to receive that kind of deal next year, but they could play their way onto a roster in the future.

Tarver has a better shot. He averaged 20.6 points a game -- fifth best in the MAC and 29th-highest in the nation. This comes on the heels of having a defibrillator implanted in his chest last fall. His twin brother, Darren, who couldn't play at George Mason, had a heart attack. Darren survived but his career was over. Derrick had the preventive measure done. He told the Akron Beacon Journal last year that doctors cleared him and said he didn't have the same condition that causes the heart wall to thicken.

Derrick missed the preseason at Akron after transferring from at the City College of San Francisco to return to his hometown. Tarver was cleared to play two days before the opener at Wright State Nov. 23 and then went out and scored 24 points.

Tarver's success story has made this team even more of a hometown favorite. It doesn't hurt that Hipsher has recruited seven players from the Akron area on the roster, including his sons Andy (4.0 apg as a passing forward), and Bryan (redshirt last season). Dan Hipsher also added two of James' teammates, guard Dru Joyce III and forward Romeo Travis. And it doesn't hurt that LeBron comes by to work out with the Zips whenever he's home.

Add 6-8, 280-pound redshirt freshman center Matt Futch (ineligible last season) and the Zips have the makings of an impact recruiting class. The perimeter (Tarver, Hollingsworth and Andy Hipsher) is as good as any threesome in the MAC. The key will be whether the forwards -- Futch, Travis, junior Darryl Peterson (13.8 ppg) and reserves Rob Preston and Nick Meyers -- can be consistent. If they are, then the Zips should rule the MAC.

Akron is doing the right thing by upgrading the non-conference schedule, too. The Zips can't get into the NCAA Tournament and become the sleeper team without picking up some power rating points in November and December (assuming they don't win the MAC postseason tournament). Akron opens at Cincinnati Nov. 22 and plays at North Carolina Dec. 14.

Akron also is supposed to play a Bracket Buster home game in February. If the organizers are smart, and the Zips play up to their potential, then they could be matched up against Illinois-Chicago. The Flames are the consensus to be the team to beat out of the Horizon League, according to Butler coach Todd Lickliter and Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl. Butler and UWM represented the Horizon League in the NCAAs last season, with Butler reaching the Sweet 16 (by beating Mississippi State and Louisville) and the Panthers falling one shot short of upsetting Notre Dame in the first round.

The key, once again, for why the Flames should be the team to beat: senior guards Martell Bailey (10 ppg, 8.1 apg) and Cedrick Banks (19 ppg).

"They are terrific college guards,'' Pearl said. "Banks is quick and can get into the lane. Martell might be better than his brother (former Flame David Bailey).''

Lickliter said the Horizon League should be as strong as it has ever been, and if that's the case, then they could give the MAC a run. The Horizon has a .630 winning percentage against the MAC and the Missouri Valley the last three seasons. Butler got to the Sweet 16 last season. Kent State, out of the MAC, got to the Elite Eight in 2002. Akron probably has more of a shot than Illinois-Chicago. Both are the clear-cut favorites in two of the most underrated leagues in the country.

But to get to the second weekend of the tourney, "you have to have a break or two in the draw,'' Lickliter said.

And seniors in the backcourt are a must. Akron has them, and so too does UIC.

What else we're hearing…

At Boston College and Minnesota…Boston College is keeping the door open slightly for Ryan Sidney to return to the team in 2004-05. The Eagles are willing to give Sidney a year off to get his life in order. Sidney left school this week for personal reasons. He was entering his senior season but never redshirted. Sidney does have a child to support and could consider trying to play in Europe. But the 6-2 guard would have to maintain his amateur status if he wants to come back to the Eagles. Boston College probably won't wait too long because they don't want to tie up a scholarship with him if he's not going to go back to college.

Meanwhile, the Eagles are still smarting from incoming 6-8 freshman Dan Coleman's decision to leave and go back to Minnesota. Coleman signed with Boston College and went to summer school at the Heights. But Coleman decided against honoring his commitment. There's a chance he could end up at Minnesota with Hopkins High (Minn.) teammate Kris Humphries. The Gophers do have a scholarship available, but the staff is adamant they haven't talked to Coleman in two years and weren't tampering.

Boston College hasn't decided if it will grant Coleman a release or if the Eagles will put a clause in the release preventing him being on scholarship at Minnesota. Minnesota coach Dan Monson advised Coleman, through his high school coach, to remain at Boston College. Monson isn't worried about a perception that the Gophers are re-recruiting players from the state. He admits the only time he did this was when Rick Rickert committed to Arizona and Monson stayed on him to convince him to be a Gopher. He said he did this on the advice of Rickert's parents. Minnesota also has gotten local residents Ben Johnson (Northwestern) and Adam Boone (North Carolina) on the rebound.

Coleman's case isn't the same as Humphries. Coleman accepted aid in the summer to attend Boston College's summer program. Under NCAA rules, that means he's treated as a transfer, not someone trying to break an NLI before he attends school. The only way Coleman could get out of the letter is if he were denied enrollment, but that's not the case here.

If Coleman were to attend Minnesota, he would have to sit out a season before he could play for the Gophers. The NCAA confirmed a similar scenario, without using Coleman's name. Coleman could appeal the decision.

But Boston College isn't Duke and the Eagles can't easily replace a member of their recruiting class. This is a case where a player burns a school instead of the player having no rights. Boston College is down to 11 players with Coleman's departure. His decision comes on the heels of Sidney's and the school's choice to dump junior Andrew Bryant (academics).

The Eagles will likely end up releasing Coleman without restrictions, but there is no way they can find another player his size this late in the summer. BC got lucky in grabbing 6-6 Jared Dudley out of San Diego, probably the top unsigned player. Dudley chose BC over San Diego State after waiting to get re-recruited this summer. Dudley will have to play this season, as will newcomers 6-6 Devon Evertsen, 6-5 Sean Marshall and 5-11 Steve Hailey. The Eagles will be strong up front with the return of Craig Smith, Uka Agbai (fracture in his neck last season) and Nate Doornekamp. But the guards (Louis Hinnant, Jermaine Watson and Johnnie Jackson) will be extremely raw and untested.

With the Maui Invitational…Maui set up Villanova against Chaminade in the first round of the event, but that doesn't mean the Wildcats are the top seed. The Maui Invitational doesn't seed the tournament. The pairings are made for television purposes. Villanova, with all of its suspensions, hardly could be the top seed. Ohio State will be the best team in the field and is matched up with San Diego State in the first round. Then, Maui set up an interesting possible second-round matchup. If Ohio State wins, they could face Dayton, if the Flyers beat Central Michigan. Ohio State usually doesn't like to play the other Division I schools in the state from power conferences (like Cincinnati). The other side of the bracket could be set up for Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors have never been in the Maui Invitational but should be the local draw, more so than Chaminade. Hawaii plays Santa Clara in the first round and gets the winner of Villanova-Chaminade. This might be the weakest field in Maui in terms of top 25 teams, but it still should be one of the more competitive tournaments Thanksgiving week.

With foreign trips…Marquette still has to decide if it's going to go to Mexico Oct. 15-19 or stay in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic Nov. 14-15 in New York. Notre Dame is all set to go to Barbados Oct. 18-25 during a week-long school vacation to play games against various Caribbean Island National teams. The Irish will get a chance to practice for 10 days prior to leaving on the trip with their entire 2003-04 team. Oklahoma is off to Costa Rica Aug. 29-Sept. 1 and will practice the week before the excursion. Vanderbilt (Spain, Aug. 14-24), Siena (Mexico, Aug. 17-27), Drake (Mexico, Aug. 29-Sept. 1), Arkansas (Mexico, Aug. 29-Sept. 1) and Old Dominion (London, Oct. 10-14) are all set for their trips. Mississippi State is still deciding on a trip or an exempted event. Meanwhile, the same group that puts on these trips - Sport Tours International out of Milwaukee - is searching for four more teams for the University Hoops Classic in New Orleans. Wyoming, Louisiana Tech, Samford and host New Orleans are the four teams in the event.

At Penn…The Quakers gave up a rare high-major home game when they let Providence out of its contract to return a home-and-home series started last season in Rhode Island. The Friars don't plan on returning the game to the Palestra. Instead, Penn is in the ECAC Holiday Festival Dec. 28-29 at Madison Square Garden with St. John's, Manhattan and Holy Cross. The Quakers do have one marquee non-conference home game against Wisconsin Nov. 21 to open the season. Penn is off to Spain next Thursday for six games in 10 days. The Quakers, who lost three of five starters and six players overall off last season's NCAA Tournament team, will begin practice Monday for the trip. The Ivy League allows teams five days, instead of the NCAA allotted 10 days, of practice prior to a foreign tour. Providence replaced the Penn game with a trip to Virginia. The Cavs would then return the game to Rhode Island the following season. Virginia coach Pete Gillen used to coach Providence.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.

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