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John Groce has a tough task ahead at Akron

Groce is back in the MAC, but things may not be easy in his first season in Akron.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The last head coach to lead a MAC team to an NCAA Tournament victory has returned to the conference.

Groce, who took Ohio to the Sweet 16 in 2012, inherits an Akron program that has won two consecutive MAC regular season titles. While the Zips failed to advance to the NCAA Tournament both years, they cruised through MAC play and reached the finals of the conference tournament each time.

But Groce has his work cut out for him.

Heading into the offseason, Akron was already going to lose its top two scorers and rebounders to graduation. Isaiah Johnson, the MAC Player of the Year in 2016-17, and Kwan Cheatham Jr. were both seniors and will not be back for the Zips next year.

However, head coach Keith Dambrot’s departure led to a gutting of the remaining roster. Akron has been among the hardest-hit teams in terms of transfers this offseason, with seven players leaving the program. Undoubtedly, there is a correlation between the turnover at head coach and the departures.

Among those transfers are Antino Jackson and Noah Robotham. The two led Akron’s backcourt and were among the team’s leaders in assists and scoring. Their departures, paired with the graduations of Johnson and Cheatham, leave only one returning starter for the Zips in 2017-18.

All told, Groce will only have three players on his roster who logged minutes during conference play for the Zips in 2016-17: Jimond Ivey, Daniel Utomi, and Emmanuel Olojakpoke. Groce not only has to adjust to a new program, but he must replace nearly every piece of Akron’s roster.

The new head coach has taken the roster challenges in stride and started to fill the gaps. Groce has brought in former Oregon State guard Malcolm Duvivier as a graduate transfer. Duvivier will be able to immediately contribute veteran leadership in Akron’s backcourt.

But even with the addition of Duvivier, expectations should probably remain low for the Zips next season. The real test for Groce will be getting the program back to its post atop the MAC with as little rebuilding time as possible, something he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“Everybody wants to [win now], but I think we have to look a little bit bigger than the next six months, or the next year.”

That philosophy of looking at the big picture is evident in some of Groce’s other offseason signings. He has played the transfer market to bring in players who will have multiple years of eligibility, even though they can’t contribute next season. Two guards, Eric Hester and Loren Jackson, have signed as transfers from Florida and Long Beach State respectively. Both were rated as three-star recruits by ESPN coming out of high school and will have three years of eligibility left after sitting out next season. Groce has also added East Carolina transfer Deng Riak, who will have three years of eligibility as well. Riak was listed as a four-star power forward according to Verbal Commits.

Those additions could be what Akron needs to ensure a successful transition to Groce at head coach. The Zips team we see in the 2017-18 season will likely not be what we have become used to in recent years, but don’t expect the Zips to be down for long.