AKRON Getting used to the new-look University of Akron men’s basketball program will take some time.
The coaching staff is new, roughly 75 percent of the roster is new and even the massive new video scoreboard at James A. Rhodes Arena is a recent addition.
When the Zips tip off their year Nov. 11 in the Coaches Vs. Cancer event against Cleveland State, fans will get their first look at a team that has been assembled and polished over the past few months under new head coach John Groce.
As Groce and four of his players addressed fans and media at the team’s media day event late last month, the first-year head coach sounded a positive note about the upcoming campaign.
"Excited to be back … it is a great opportunity, I’ve aways had great respect for not only Northeast Ohio basketball, but in particular the University of Akron. We had some tremendous battles and obviously the program here had some tremendous success recently and that speaks for itself," Groce said. "We’re excited to build on that success and continue to work with these guys on a daily basis to continue to grow what we’re trying to do."
Groce, who spent four seasons in the Mid-American Conference at Ohio University prior to his most recent stop at the University of Illinois, noted that his MAC background does help, but it has still been a long process connecting with his new players and working a double-digit number of newcomers into the mix.
"The fact that I’ve had an opportunity to be in the league four years previously certainly helps. We’ve got a long way to go, but I do think that familiarity helps. We have great tradition here. I always tell these guys this is bigger than one person and I think they understand that," Groce said. "Regardless of who it is, when a coaching change takes place, it’s hard and these guys … changes in terms of what we do whether it’s academically or on the court or how we practice or how we use film."
The buzz around the program leading up to the season has been how strongly players are buying into Groce’s system. One of the players who took part in media day was Malcolm Duvivier, a graduate transfer from Oregon State who has one year of eligibility remaining and chose to come cross country to suit up for Akron.
Duvivier is one of 11 new faces on the roster and when asked what drew him to Akron, he cited Groce’s resume and plan for how to keep the Zips’ recent run of success going.
"I just think that the school has such a great culture of winning and then coach Groce, he has an awesome resume in this conference," Duvivier said. "He just provided me the blueprint and I want to win games, so I’ve just come in and bought in to what he has t say and try to be a continuous learner."
With Duvivier and others working their way into the mix, the four returning players on the roster have had plenty of new names and personalities to learn. Groce said the players enjoy being together off the court and said many have spent time hanging out at his house, playing ping pong or video games and having meals.
He referred back to lessons his parents taught him about treating people with respect and getting back up every time he got knocked down and wants his players to embody those same ideals.
Junior Jimond Ivey is one of the returning players and after averaging 10.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in a breakout campaign last season, he figures to be a central piece for whatever success the Zips may have this season. Ivey admitted that when he and fellow returnees Daniel Utomi and Craig Eubanks learned that many of their teammates were leaving the school in the wake of former head coach Keith Dambrot’s departure for Duquesne, they had a serious conversation on what to do.
"When I first heard that a lot of players were leaving, I sat with these two (Craig Eubanks and Daniel Utomi) and we decided that we was gonna stay," Ivey said. "I think coach (Groce) came in and he brought recruits in to meet us first and coach always told us that when he brought guys in if we don’t like their energy or don’t think they fit the culture of this program to let him know."
The next few months will reveal how well those new faces fit and whether Groce’s system can sustain the success Dambrot built at Akron, but in the first few weeks of the season, fans may need to keep their programs handy to recognize the players on the court much of the time. Getting a handle on who these Zips are will take time, both for those inside the program and those on the outside.
COACHES VS. CANCER
As part of media day, Groce and his players were joined by the head coaches and players from Youngstown State, Cleveland State and Kent State, which will round out the field for the two-day event to be held at the JAR Nov. 11.
Akron will play Cleveland State at 7 p.m., while Kent State and Youngstown State will square off at 9 p.m. Three of the four programs will sport new head coaches, with Dennis Felton in his first season at Cleveland State and Jerrod Calhoun in his first season at Youngstown State. Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff is the lone returnee in the group, but all four shared their feelings on being part of the event.
Groce related his family’s own experiences with cancer and noted that his wife is actively involved with the Coaches Vs. Cancer event.
"Watching my mother battle breast cancer and all the trips I made back and forth from where I was employed at that time to see her and watching her fight and win that battle … for me, it really has touched our family on a very personal level," Groce said.
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