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Akron men's basketball peaks at the right time to punch a ticket to March Madness

University of Akron's men's basketball team
Mid-American Conference
Akron U.'s men's basketball team won the Mid-American Conference Championship over rival Kent State this past weekend.

The University of Akron men’s basketball team is gearing up for its first NCAA Tournament since 2013. The Zips punched their ticket to March Madness after winning the Mid-American Conference Championship this past weekend.

Commentator Terry Pluto says Akron got hot when it mattered.

"They were considered a middle-of-the-pack team, and when the MAC Tournament opened, they knocked out the third seed, the second seed, and the first seed. They're now on an eight-game winning streak. Sometimes a team that's underdog and scrappy peaks at the right time," Pluto said.

The Zips defeated Kent State in the MAC Tournament final. Kent had beaten them twice during the regular season. And Akron was projected to finish fifth in the MAC in a preseason poll. And at one point, they looked like it.

"They had a three-game losing streak in the middle of February, and usually that's it. Then they won five in a row to end the regular season," Pluto said.

The roster
Pluto says the roster has players with some interesting backgrounds.

First, Enrique Freeman, who was named the MAC's Defensive Player of the Year and was named the MVP of the MAC tournament. Freeman went to St. Martin de Porres High School in Cleveland. Pluto says students there attend classes four days a week and work at local company on the fifth day as part of an effort to acquaint them to the business world.

"Akron coach John Groce said, 'I could coach 50 years and never have a story like this.'"
Terry Pluto

"Last year, [Freeman] worked at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in human resources one day a week, and he went to Akron on an academic scholarship sponsored by one of the corporations. He didn't even play basketball [his] first year at Akron," Pluto said.

Instead, Freeman was a walk-on who attended an open tryout.

"A lot of times [players] walk on in some way that the coaches are aware of, and they invite you when they don't want to give you a scholarship. He made it through an open tryout," Pluto said.

Pluto said Freeman is close to graduating with a degree in communications and is working on a minor in business with the goal of getting his MBA.

"Akron coach John Groce said, 'I could coach 50 years and never have a story like this,'" Pluto said.

Then you have Ali Ali, a player from Indiana who received no Division I offers.

"They were scouting some other players at one of these summer tournaments, and Groce says, 'Who's this Ali kid from Noblesville, Ind.?'" Pluto said. "He wasn't getting much interest. So they watched him and called and offered him a scholarship."

And then you have Xavier Castaneda, who played three years at South Florida before entering the transfer portal.

"John Groce had tried to recruit him several years ago. He wasn't able to get him," Pluto said.

So, when they saw his name pop up in the transfer portal, they decided to try again.

"They were able to bring him in, and he's averaged like 13 points for them. And he made big shots this weekend," Pluto said.

The coach
Then there's Coach Groce, who has had some success in the MAC.

"He was at Ohio University and took them to the NCAA Tournament back-to-back years. In fact, one year he took them to the Sweet 16," Pluto said. "Then after that, he went to Illinois. He had one good year there, and several that weren't so good. And so now after that, he came into a tough spot."

The tough spot was taking over after Akron's legendary coach, Keith Dambrot, the winningest coach in school history with a 305-139 record in 13 seasons.

Pluto said Dambrot took Akron to March Madness in 2009, 2011 and 2013, but the team never won a game.

The Zips have a tough draw. The 13th seed will play the No. 4 seed, UCLA, in the East Region in Portland, Ore., at 9:50 p.m. Thursday.

Whatever the outcome, Pluto says it's been a remarkable season.

"I was talking to Charles Guthrie, the athletic director, and he said, you know, the school's been through a lot with different changes in athletics and presidents. And to get something where the community gets excited, the school gets excited, where they think they have the stability now at the top. It really is an underdog story," Pluto said.