The University of Akron men’s basketball team has rebounded in the Mid-American Conference after several down years. As of Wednesday, the team is 6-2 in the conference and 16-5 overall. WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto says Akron had to start from scratch after their beloved longtime coach Keith Dambrot left for Duquesne three years ago.
Two years of decline
Dambrot coached LeBron James at St. Vincent St. Mary’s and spent 13 years as the University of Akron coach. His teams won 21 games or more in each of his last 12 seasons, a feat matched during that time by only Duke, Kansas and Gonzaga. He also took the team to three NCAA Tournaments and five NIT appearances.
“I've always said, I pity the poor guy that comes in after Dambrot,” Pluto said.
Enter John Groce.
Beginning in 2008, Groce spent four seasons coaching Ohio University. In 2012, he led the Bobcats to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. At the end of that season, he accepted the head coaching job at the University of Illinois. He was fired in 2017 despite his 95–75 record. The Illini made the NCAA tournament just once under his watch.
He was hired by the University of Akron in April of 2017.
“The problem was, Groce shows up and not a lot of players stay,” Pluto said. “Then you have some of the players who do stay leftover and some of the new guys coming in. It's hard to kind of blend all that together.”
Groce’s first two seasons were rough on the heels of Dambrot’s success. In the Mid-American Conference, the team had records of 6-12 and 8-10. As of Wednesday, the Zips are 6-2 in the MAC.
“The last couple of years he's realized to build a team here and the climate of basketball right now is not that you just recruit a bunch of freshmen and grow with it,” Pluto said.
Finding a new way to recruit
Groce realized the key is finding players who are looking to transfer from other universities and junior colleges.
“Over 40% of guys playing Division I basketball right now will play for at least two schools,” Pluto said. “The idea of having one guy at one school for four years is rare.”
First, Groce found players Loren Cristian Jackson and Deng Riak, who were teammates at Victory Rock Prep in Florida. Jackson went on to play at Long Beach State in California, while Riak, a native of Australia, went on to play at Eastern Carolina University.
The link, Pluto said, is that Groce knew Jackson’s father, who coached at Victory Rock. “Both of those two kids wanted to play together,” Pluto said.
This week, Jackson was named College Insider’s National Player of the Week and the Mid-American Conference Eastern Division Player of the Week. He scored a career-high 35 points on Saturday and is averaging 18.5 points per game.
Groce also brought in transfer standout Tyler Cheese. The Georgia native played at Florida Southwestern State College. He’s averaging 15.9 points per game.
"(Groce) had to recruit in a whole different way and make sure that these are pretty good kids. And most of them are, academically. He said they had close to a 3.0 (GPA) for the team."
Pluto says no longer is there a stigma attached to college players who transfer or start at junior college.
"For one, they're older and more mature. Most of Akron's starters are older than some of the Cavaliers' starters. You have 20-year-old Darius Garland and 21-year-old Collin Sexton. Some of these kids for Akron are 22-years-old. In the old days, everybody would stay in school for four years. So you didn't get to the NBA til 22 or 23. Things are just different now."