— AND - They are as close in miles as Duke and North Carolina are, but in the landscape of big-time college basketball, Akron and Kent State are as far apart as Syracuse and Santa Barbara City College.
In a win-and-go-to-the-NCAA-tournament game Saturday night, the Zips won 66-65 in overtime, captured the Mid-American Conference tournament title and earned a round-trip ticket to "The Big Dance."
But earning the trip and doing something special when you get there are entirely different matters, and one thing the Zips proved — Kent State proved it as well in losing — is that the MAC isn't going to dance long.
That's the only conclusion to be drawn from a performance best suited for the middle of December and not the middle of March Madness. Nothing against the MAC; it is a conference that has had success in the NCAA tournament before.
A season ago, Ohio University, a No. 14 seed, knocked out No. 3 Georgetown and left people's NCAA brackets in disarray. In springing the upset, the Bobcats relied on Armon Bassett, a slick, quick guard who had played at Indiana, lost his bearings in the Bloomington, Ind., and wound up in Athens, Ohio.
Not a single player on the Akron roster looked like Bassett or his freshman sidekick D.J. Cooper, which is the pity. The Zips could use the kind of guard play that helped Ohio ambush Georgetown.
Absent a dynamic tandem at guard, the Zips must have something that might give their faithful hope of a deep run in the tournament, right?
Looking at the Akron roster and at the other teams in the conference, the answer would be no. A couple of things about those rosters do stand out, though: While MAC teams play gritty, blue-collar basketball, they are short on height, on bulk, on quickness and on depth.
To speak to Akron specifically, coach Keith Dambrot's Zips feature undersized guards in Steve McNeese, Darryl Roberts and Alex Abreu, undersized forwards in Brett McKnight, Quincy Diggs and Nikola Cvetinovic and a thin-as-a-pole center in sophomore Zeke Marshall.
All the scrappiness in the state of Ohio can't bless Akron (23-12) now with the traits it needs to go beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Yes, the Zips head into the Big Dance on a natural high, but they'll need to come down quickly if they dream of springing an upset on anybody. The way they played against Kent State, they'll be lucky to land a No. 15 seed, which means they face the prospects of meeting a team like Texas or Brigham Young or San Diego State or one of the powerhouse teams from the deep Big East.
None of these scenarios seem overly appealing. None of them can do anything but frighten the Zips — scare them straight into a pounding if they duplicate the uneven play, as Dambrot put it, that marked their tournament win at The Q.
"We were very fortunate to win," he said. "The ball just bounced our way."
His Zips will need many more lucky bounces to repeat what Ohio did last season in raising the profile of the mid-major MAC.