PORTLAND, Ore. — They haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in 23 years. They are named after zipper galoshes. Their mascot is “Zippy” the kangaroo, for goodness sakes.
Yet there is nothing shy or warm or cuddly about these Akron Zips. High-flying, heavily favored Gonzaga only wishes there was.
“I don’t think I’ve ever, in 20 years of watching game tape, seen a team that plays that hard,” said coach Mark Few, whose fourth-seeded Bulldogs (26-5) meet No. 13 seed Akron (23-12), the rugged champion of the Mid-American Conference tournament, on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
There are good reasons for that blue-collar work ethic.
Two of Akron’s three leading scorers, brothers Brett and Chris McKnight, grew up playing against prison inmates in Lancaster, Ohio, south of Columbus.
Casual pick-up games?
“Oh, not at all. It’s soooo physical,” said Chris McKnight, a senior forward averaging 9.2 points per game — 2.2 points below sophomore Brett, the team leader. “Those games take me back to the games we’d play with my dad in the driveway.”
Phillip McKnight is a prison guard supervising 150 inmates at the Southern Correctional Institute in Lancaster.
“There are no fouls. You get knocked down, you better get back up and keep playing,” Chris said.
And forget pouting over the lack of a call while splayed on the court.
The referees? Other prisoners.
“It’s really physical,” McKnight said. “That’s the way me and my brother grew up playing, the way our high school coaches taught us, the way this team plays.”
Senior Nate Linhart, the Zips’ second-leading scorer who will start his 106th game for Akron Thursday, played against McKnight at Gahanna Lincoln High School.
“I didn’t know that!” he said to McKnight about the prison ball, jabbing at his teammate in the Zips’ locker room Wednesday. “That explains where the elbows came from in our games.”
In-your-face Akron is 19th in the nation in scoring defense, yielding less than 60 points per game. Coach Keith Dambrot said that rugged play must intensify to stay with Gonzaga, which has topped 80 points 22 times this season and was ranked 10th in the final Associated Press poll.
“We’re going to play hard … but we have to defend like we’ve never defended,” said Dambrot, who took over the Zips in 2004. “We just have to scrap.”
Beyond prison yards, Akron’s scrap can also be traced to its rust-belt roots.
The unemployment rate in Akron’s Summit County, home of shuttered factories, was 9.3 percent in January. It was 10.2 percent in neighboring Portage County.
“I think it plays a major role. Most of our team are Ohio kids, and a couple of kids from the Pittsburgh area. So they’ve gone through the same things with the steel industry and the automobile industry,” said Dambrot, who went to Akron’s Firestone High School and graduated in 1982 from the University of Akron, where he was four-year baseball player. “The economy in Ohio is not very good. I think we have scrappy kids, guys that want to show they can play.
“We’re scrappy, there’s no doubt about it. And I don’t know if it’s the most talented team we’ve ever had, but it’s the team that’s played the hardest … and it’s the team that probably has the highest character of any team we’ve had. When you hit adversity, I think that character shows up.”
Adversity may be coming Thursday.
Gonzaga went undefeated through the West Coast Conference regular season and tournament. The Zags have won 18 of 19 games — the only loss to Memphis, a No. 2 seed in the tournament. They quietly believe this is the most talented of their 11 consecutive NCAA tournament teams.
They have scoring threats inside and out. Leading scorer Josh Heytvelt (14.9 points per game) is listed as a 6-foot-11 center, but hits 42 percent of his 3-point shots and 57 percent overall. Second-leading scorer Matt Bouldin makes almost 50 percent of his 3-pointers, 53 percent overall. Two other Bulldogs average in double figures: Sophomore Austin Daye (12.9 points) and sometimes flashy, sometimes reckless point guard Jeremy Pargo (10.1 points).
“I think we do have the talent and the team to be able to get to a Final Four,” Heytvelt said. “I don’t think there’s anything stopping us besides us in getting there.”
Next to the rugged Zips, the freewheeling Bulldogs look like sleek greyhounds.
That’s why Linhart said he could use advice from Akron native LeBron James, a buddy who plays summer pickup games with the Zips on campus and played for Dambrot at the city’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School from 1999-2001.
James bought the Zips custom blue, gold and white game shoes for this season, complete with a sketch of the Akron city skyline and a sign of Hickory Street — on which the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar grew up. James has had 34 points and 14 assists plus 37 points and 14 rebounds in his last two games in Portland.
“Yeah,” Linhart said, laughing. “Maybe we can have coach speak to LeBron tonight to give us pointers for out here.”