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UB faces big test from visiting Akron

The inexperienced front-court of the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team gets put to a severe test to start the Mid-American Conference season Tuesday.

UB plays host to the University of Akron, the favorite to win the MAC’s East Division, at 7 p.m. at Alumni Arena.

Akron (11-2) currently is the highest-rated team in the MAC, at No. 57 in the nation, according to kenpom.com.

UB (7-6) is off to a solid start to the season thanks to a good perimeter lineup, but the Bulls are young and thin in the front-court.

Ikenna Smart, a 6-foot-10 red-shirt freshman, is UB’s starter in the low post. Nick Perkins, a 6-8 true freshman, is UB’s No. 2 inside player. David Kadiri, a 6-8 junior, is the No. 3 low-post option.

UB officially lost 6-10 senior Raheem Johnson on Monday to season-ending surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.

Akron has two low-post standouts: 6-10, 290-pound junior Isaiah “Big Dog” Johnson, and 6-11 senior Pat Forsythe, a preseason first-team All-MAC East pick. Forsythe’s status for the UB game is uncertain. He has been out since Dec. 12 with an ankle injury.

Even if Forsythe doesn’t play or is limited, Johnson will be a handful. He’s averaging 11.5 points and 8.0 rebounds a game.

“They’re huge,” said UB coach Nate Oats. “With Johnson and Forsythe, they’ve got two of the best bigs in the league, and we’re young inside. Our two biggest guys are both freshmen.”

“Akron’s strength is their interior play and their three-point shooting,” Oats said. “So they’ll throw it in. People can’t guard them one-on-one. So then teams double, and their bigs pass well. They kick it out. They shoot 29 threes a game.”

Akron has won 20 or more games 10 straight seasons under coach Keith Dambrot. The Zips haven’t played as tough a schedule as UB. But they have quality wins over two top-100 teams, Arkansas and Iona.

“Dog is playing at a super high level around the rim,” Dambrot told the Akron Beacon-Journal, in reference to Johnson last week. “The attribute that makes him very difficult to defend is his passing ability, so you gotta pick your poison a little bit with him. Are you going to double or play him 1-on-1 in there?”

UB is playing at the fastest pace in the MAC. Akron is one of the most half-court-oriented teams.

“We want to play fast,” Oats said. “Offensively we want to push as hard as we can.”

Akron’s half-court defense is outstanding. The Zips rank 15th in the nation in field-goal percentage allowed (.377) and third in the nation in three-point percentage allowed (.246).

The Zips also might be without one of their best three-point shooters, 6-7 senior Jake Kretzer, who sustained a concussion on Dec. 30.

But even if he sits, the Bulls have five other three-point threats, headed by 6-6 senior Reggie McAdams.

UB neutralized Akron’s big men in a 69-58 MAC semifinal win last March.

But former UB forward Justin Moss was the key factor. He was able to play away from the basket, where he was too quick for Akron’s big men.

Yet he was strong enough to defend either of them. UB probably won’t be able to keep “Big Dog” Johnson from clogging the lane on Tuesday.

UB’s Smart is a promising player, but he’s being forced into a bigger role than expected because of Moss’ expulsion. Smart is averaging a foul every four minutes of action, along with 2.9 points and 15 minutes a game. UB needs him on the court longer than that against the Zips. Perkins is averaging 19 minutes and 6.4 points a game.

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St. Bonaventure sophomore guard Jay Adams was named the Atlantic 10 Conference player of the week. Adams averaged 23 points and 8.0 assists in two Bona wins last week.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com