The Akron Zips have sent mixed messages through their first 20 games of the season.

The Akron Zips have sent mixed messages through their first 20 games of the season.

At times, they have looked like a typical Keith Dambrot team, using a deep rotation and scoring balance to push their way to the top of the crowded Mid-American Conference East Division. At other points, they have been virtually unwatchable offensively, adrift without strong point guard play and overly reliant on 3-point shooting.

Yet as they near the halfway point of the MAC season, the Zips are in a familiar spot atop the division standings. At 14-6 and 6-1 in MAC play, they are in first place by one game over Ohio and Buffalo. Their ability to remain there and have another successful run in the postseason will hinge largely on three areas:

1. Point guard play

Many of UA's struggles have originated from inconsistent play at the point. Junior transfer Nyles Evans (North Canton Hoover) has been the primary starter, but has struggled at both ends of the court. Offensively, he has been erratic in running Dambrot's offensive sets and his best asset — his shooting — has been missing of late. Evans is shooting just 29.2 percent for the season and 61.8 percent at the free throw line. Defensively, he has struggled to keep his man in front of him at times.

His backup, sophomore Carmelo Betancourt, has had his own troubles. After taking over for Alex Abreu late last season and starting during the Zips' tournament run, Betancourt lost his starting spot to Evans at the beginning of the season before regaining it two weeks ago. A pass-first point guard, Betancourt has begun to show more of a willingness to shoot of late and must be more of a threat to prevent defenses from ignoring him and doubling the Zips' other scorers.

2. Post presence

Senior forward Demetrius Treadwell has been the Zips' best and most consistent player at 13.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. However, his versatility and athleticism take him away from the low post much of the time and the two players UA has turned to as replacements at center for the departed Zeke Marshall — redshirt sophomore Pat Forsythe and freshman Isaiah Johnson — have not delivered regularly.

Forsythe (5.6 ppg) showed flashes of promise last season in relief of Marshall, but his quality post moves and rebounding instincts have been obscured by passive play this season. In a Jan. 18 loss to Toledo, Forsythe had the ball ripped from his hands by smaller players and was beaten out for rebounds numerous times.

Johnson, at 6-foot-10 and 285 pounds, made a significant effort to improve his conditioning entering the season and has flashed his promise intermittently, including a 12-point, seven-rebound effort in a win over Miami.

If Forsythe's passive play continues, Johnson could see increased minutes the rest of the way. In a Jan. 22 win at Eastern Michigan and a victory at Central Michigan three days later, Dambrot elected to go with a smaller lineup and bring both Forsythe and Johnson off the bench after starting Forsythe the first 17 games of the season.

3. Free throw woes

Success at the line has been an issue each of the last two seasons. The Zips shot just 64.3 percent on charity tosses last season and that number has dipped to 61 percent this year, 339th of 345 Division I teams. That inability to convert from the line could be a liability late in the season in key conference games.

With eight straight 22-plus win seasons and as the defending MAC champion, standards for the Zips — both internally and among fans — are high. Despite losing Marshall, UA was picked first in the East in the preseason media poll. Finding faults with a 14-6 team could be construed as overly critical, but Dambrot has said on more than one occasion that he envisions the program reaching the sort of national status that successful mid-major programs such as Gonzaga have attained. Reaching that point means addressing shortcomings and minding every detail, no matter how small.

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