2022 Cayman Islands Classic

Cayman Islands Classic: After NCAA Tournament Bid, Akron Is Back For More

Cayman Islands Classic: After NCAA Tournament Bid, Akron Is Back For More

Akron nearly upset the most successful program in NCAA Tournament history a season ago. The Zips return the foundation from that team to make another run.

Nov 18, 2022 by Kyle Kensing
Cayman Islands Classic: After NCAA Tournament Bid, Akron Is Back For More

Five minutes and 28 seconds. 

That's all that separated the Akron Zips from a landmark win last March. At that juncture in their 1st Round NCAA Tournament matchup with UCLA, the Zips held a seven-point lead — which, given the game's low-scoring nature, felt like 17 points — and were nearing the finish line. 

But at 5:28, big man Enrique Freeman was whistled for his fourth personal foul. Freeman played an outstanding game for Akron, recording a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds in the 57-53 loss. That the tenor of the game shifted with Freeman in foul trouble isn't surprising. 

And when Freeman received his fifth and disqualifying call at the 2:21 mark, an offensive foul. Akron led 51-50 at that juncture, but was outscored 7-2 in the closing stretch without its stanodut post presence. 

"Part of me was a little disappointed fouling out," Freeman said in the postgame press conference. "And then part of me also knew I could trust in my team and to cheer them on to get it done."

The 2022 NCAA Tournament may not have finished the way Freeman and his Akron teammates wanted, but that expressed trust in the Zips locker room is at the heart of their 2022-23 ambitions. 

In this era of college basketball, roster shake-ups seem like more of an inevitability that at any other time in the game's history. A strong showing in March, like Akron had in the Mid-American Conference Tournament en route to nearly knocking the most decorated team in Big Dance history out from the 1st Round, often leads to more lucrative contract offers for coaches. 

Zips coach John Croce is an example. Ohio University's run to the Sweet 16 a decade ago led to Groce's move to Illinois. 

Likewise, an impressive postseason can land a rising star on NBA organizations' draft radars. And if it's not the NBA, the change in transfer rules allowing players to move without penalty makes the prospect of joining a more prominent program's roster attractive. 

To that end, Groce's words following the March Madness loss ring especially true. 

"I think my biggest disappointment is I don't get to keep coaching this team," he said in the postgame press conference. "I've had some really good teams, been very blessed, fortunate to have had some great teams to be around and coach that I really enjoyed, but this one is right up there at the top over the last nine games."

And indeed, the 2022-23 Zips roster isn't the exact same as the 2021-22 Tournament lineup. But the nation's most efficient scorer last year, Freeman, opted to return. So too did Xavier Castaneda, whose 18 points against UCLA led all scorers. Both are preseason All-MAC honorees

Groce's back, too, meaning another year coaching an Akron roster with the inside-outside duo of Freeman and Castaneda providing the pillars for another potential postseason run. 

Meanwhile, though the transfer-portal era has made roster consistency a tenuous balancing attack for plenty of programs, the '22-'23 Zips benefit from the addition of Sammy Hunter from Ole Miss. Hunter's made his presence known immediately on the season, delivering one of the jaw-dropping highlights of the opening weeks. 

The Zips might have gone into the offseason wondering what might be different had the final 5:28 against UCLA gone differently, but finishing on the cusp of a historic win and returning the core behind that means Akron should get the a shot at a do-over. 

The squad gets to test its March mettle for this year in a Cayman Islands Classic field rife with potential Big Dance partners. Akron tips off the tournament on Monday, Nov. 21, against Western Kentucky.