PORTLAND — Charles Guthrie realizes the hidden value of the NCAA Tournament.
He has served as director of athletics at the University of Akron for just under nine months. In his prior stops over more than two decades, most recently at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, he had never won a conference tournament in men’s basketball.
The Zips earning the automatic bid by winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament and making their first NCAA appearance since 2013 couldn’t have come at a better time for a department battered by budget cuts.
Their dream of joining the list of March Madness Cinderellas came to an end on Thursday, when the 13th-seeded Zips (24-10) fell to the fourth-seeded UCLA Bruins (26-7) 57-53 in an East Regional game at the Fashion Center.
Even in the loss, the ramifications on the surface were easy to grasp.
“Playing in the tournament is a great level of exposure,” sophomore forward Ali Ali said before the team left for Portland. “More people will definitely be aware of Akron basketball. It’s going to be a great opportunity for the university, the city, and for us just to go out there and have fun.”
To Guthrie, more was involved.
“We hope that we produce winning championship teams that can drive enrollment,” Guthrie said Sunday. “When our enrollment is up, we all eat.
“That’s what’s so important about having our team make the tournament and be on the national scene, we’re going to get more impressions and hopefully that leads to more applications. If we could win a game, more applications.”
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While UA’s marketing department was among the budget casualties, Guthrie pointed out that universities can sell themselves in three ways — successful alumni, faculty research, and athletics.
“It tells our story. The story we want people to hear,” Guthrie said.
Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher agreed that reaching the NCAA Tournament could be a big boost for UA.
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“It’s wonderful for the University of Akron,” Steinbrecher said pregame. “In fact, I was thinking, ‘I’m wondering what the hits are on their website and their athletic website, all those sorts of things. You’re on a big stage. A lot of people are watching.
“I always look at every one of our athletic events as a marketing opportunity. On this, you’re one of just a handful of games tonight in one of the biggest basketball tournaments in the world.”
UA coach John Groce started a lineup of four sophomores and a junior against the Bruins. Groce took his third different team to the NCAA Tournament, going in 2010 and 2012 while at Ohio University and in 2013, his first of five seasons at Illinois.
Groce hoped the Zips’ valiant battle against a team with such a storied tradition as UCLA, which has made 19 Final Four appearances, eight since the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1975, will help the prestige of UA’s program.
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“These guys, they got to the point where over the last nine games we believed that we could beat anybody by the way that we prepared, how together we were. We were a team. That’s kind of how we operated,” Groce said. “I hope that people enjoyed watching these guys as much as I enjoyed coaching them because it’s a special group.
“I hope the people back at home, and I think they did, because we represented the city of Akron obviously today, we represented the university, all the students that have gone there before, currently… hopefully we brought a smile to their face a little bit. Because where we’re from, you’ve got to earn stuff. It’s blue-collar. That’s the way Northeast Ohio is.
“That relationship with Northeast Ohio, I hope they enjoyed watching this team because I think it embodied a lot of the values that are a part of our community.”
On Saturday night, when the Zips upset second-seeded Kent State 75-55 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to win the MAC title, Guthrie said a member of UA’s board of trustees pulled him aside. Guthrie said the observation was, “’This is what makes Akron special. The MAC championship. We’re always in it. This is what we do. We do basketball.’”
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That excites Guthrie, but so does the hiring of football coach Joe Moorhead, the former offensive coordinator at the University of Oregon.
“This could be the golden years for University of Akron athletics. Every athletic program gets a jolt of energy when they have a good run and I feel like our run is coming right now,” Guthrie said.
“Definitely I think we’re trending in the right direction.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at [email protected] Read more about the Zips at www.beaconjournal.com/zips. Follow her de ella on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.