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Mike Lopresti | | February 16, 2017

A look at teams dominating their conferences

It's conference race trivia time:

There are only three teams out there still unbeaten in their respective leagues, close to running the table. Gonzaga, you’ve probably heard about. Which leaves...?

Princeton in the Ivy League and Vermont in the America East.

Here’s another: What conference leader has managed to be the only team in the nation this season to lose eight games in a row and then win eight games in a row?

That’d be Mount St. Mary’s, once 1-11 but now galloping in front of the Northeast by three games.

Next one: After Duke won at Virginia on Wednesday, there are only four schools in the country that can say they’ve had at least 21 victories in 12 consecutive seasons. Bluebloods Kansas, Gonzaga, Duke and...?

Akron, of course. At 22-4 overall and 12-1 in the league, the Zips are so far ahead of the rest of the Mid-American Conference at the moment, they’re a dust cloud. Four — count ‘em — four games better than anyone else.

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So here’s to the conference dominators. They might not be the biggest names on the national marquee, but they’ve been the princes of darkness in their own leagues.

Here’s to Akron, 22-4, and 12-1 in the MAC.

The Zips don’t draw nearly enough regard for their decade-spanning consistency, with 21-plus wins coming off the assembly line every year and appearances in eight of the past 10 MAC championship games. 

“The people who are around basketball, they know,” coach Keith Dambrot said over the phone Wednesday. “I think the media, the fans, they probably don’t know. Even our own people. It’s hard to do what we’ve done.”

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Here are some things to know about Akron. Its 30-game home court winning streak is the nation’s longest east of Oregon. The Zips are led by 6-foot-11 Isaiah Johnson’s 16.6 muscle points inside, but they also average 10.7 3-pointers a game, fifth most in the country. They were down two points at Gonzaga with 10 minutes left before losing 61-43, holding the Zags 24 points under their scoring average on their own home court. They were in the game at Creighton, too.

“We’re not as good defensively. That part bothers me,” Dambrot said. “We share the ball, we don’t turn the ball over, we can shoot the ball from the perimeter, and we’ve got a monster inside. And then we also have that big forward [6-foot-9 Kwan Cheatham Jr.] that allows us to guard high majors. We had 6-foot-7 players that were great players for this league, but when we stepped up a class, we were a little small.”

  Keith Dambrot has quietly carved out a decade of strong play for Akron in the MAC.
Curious thing. They’re steamrolling the MAC in the standings, but nine of their 12 league wins have been by seven or fewer points.

“It’s been a perplexing year,” Dambrot said. “We have had no dominating wins this year compared to the past. We’re way ahead, but it doesn’t feel like we’re that much better.”

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Which makes for a nervous March, and no one understands that better than Dambrot. In those eight trips to the league championship game — seven in a row from 2007-2013 — Akron won three times but also lost by one point twice, in overtime another year, and on a 3-pointer with two seconds left in 2016.

“The first time in it, we lost on a clock malfunction and a 40-foot bank, and I’m thinking to myself, we can have a good team every year and not make it to the NCAA tournament. And that’s the scary part of it,” he said. “You think about the Big Ten tournament or any of those high major tournaments, there’s not that much on the line for most of those teams. For us, if we don’t win the tournament, we’re out.

“Part of it’s luck. You’ve got to put yourself in position to be lucky, but you also have to have a little bit of luck. Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.”

Which is the reality facing all the league dominators.

Here’s to Vermont, 24-5 and 14-0 in the America East.

The Catamounts’ last defeat was in December at Butler, 16 victories ago. That gives them the longest winning streak in the nation for any school not named Gonzaga. It also keeps them on the road to becoming the first 16-0 team in the history of the America East. Freshman Anthony Lamb, who scored 17 points in his first four league games, has scored 66 in his last three.

Here’s to Princeton, 15-6 and 8-0 and in the Ivy League.

The Tigers lost two senior starting forwards to season-ending injury in December, but they’ve carried on and won 11 in a row. That would include leading scorer Steven Cook, who when he isn’t contributing 14 points a game has done fundraising for a Sudanese hospital and interned for a Chicago anti-poverty organization.

Here’s to Middle Tennessee, 22-4 overall, and 12-1 in Conference USA.

Remember the bunch that dumped No. 2 seed Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament by nine points? Giddy Potts is not leading the nation in 3-point shooting like he did last season, but he’s still he’s making gobs of them, and combining with JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw to give Middle Tennessee nearly 47 points a game from three players. The Blue Raiders have been a particular pest for the SEC, beating Vanderbilt by 23 and Mississippi by 15.

Here’s to Valparaiso, 21-5 and 11-2 in the Horizon.

The Crusaders were NIT runner-ups last spring, lost coach Bryce Drew to Vanderbilt, and kept on winning. Nine of their 11 league victories have been by double digits, and when they beat Rhode Island in December, it broke a 40-game losing streak against ranked opponents.

This all starts with senior Alec Peters, the nation’s fifth leading scorer at 23.1.  Peters passed his old coach Drew as Valpo’s all-time scorer this season. He is also the top career rebounder, and the rather short list of guys who have done that at their schools includes Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Jerry West, Danny Manning and David Robinson. So Peters has moved into a pretty upscale neighborhood.

Here’s to Monmouth, 22-5 and 14-2 in the Metro Atlantic.

That makes the Hawks 3 ½ games better than anyone else in the league. They’ve won 12 in a row, with five different players leading the team in scoring during the streak. But the biggest name in the box score is often 5-8. That’d be Justin Robinson, who just scored 40 in one game.

Here’s to Belmont, 18-5 and 12-1 in the Ohio Valley.   

The Bruins just had a 14-game winning streak snapped, but they are thriving with the usual efficient offense. Leading scorer Evan Bradds makes 62 percent of his shots, and the team averages nearly 17 assists a game.

Rick Byrd is one of the game’s more unsung coaches, with 658 wins at Belmont in 31 years, while producing a nation-leading 14 Academic All-Americans since 2001. 

And finally, here’s to Mount St. Mary’s, 14-13 and 12-2 in the Northeast.

The schedule might explain that 1-11 start. The Mountaineers opened with nine consecutive road games, against the likes of West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas. Trial by fire, not to mention miles. But it steeled them for conference play. At 5-foot-5, second leading scorer Junior Robinson is the smallest player in Division I.

Nine teams who stand alone in their leagues. But March is coming and lots can happen. Just ask Keith Dambrot.

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