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By Tom Withers | Associated Press
AKRON -- Palming a basketball in each hand, Zeke Marshall's arms are outstretched across the entire face of a building next to the bustling student union. Akron's 7-foot center towers above campus.
On a huge billboard overlooking the soccer field now covered in several inches of wind-drifted snow, Marshall's gigantic image -- his eyes fixed straight ahead, his face showing a nothing-but-business scowl -- is accompanied by the slogan for this year's basketball team: "Think Bigger."
The Zips are doing just that.
"As long as we keep working hard and refining our skills, I feel like we should win the national championship," the shot-swatting Marshall said without hesitation after Thursday's morning practice. "We're definitely talented enough."
Riding a 14-game winning streak -- the nation's longest active one -- and with a roster balanced in size, strength and experience, Akron, which has been resurrected the last decade under coach Keith Dambrot, just might be the next mid-major program to crash the big boys' NCAA Tournament party in March.
The Zips haven't lost since Dec. 15, but they haven't gained much attention outside Ohio and Mid-American Conference circles. That's beginning to change.
"They haven't been playing under my radar," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "I've been watching them all season. They're a really good basketball team. They do a really good job offensive rebounding. They can defend in the post, they've got really good guards and Marshall is only getting better."
This week, Akron received four votes in the AP's Top 25 poll, a sign the streak along with an unbeaten record in the ultra-competitive MAC, haven't gone unnoticed. There's a buzz around the school, which has changed its image in recent years from a commuter's destination with the addition of several new buildings and athletic facilities.
It also doesn't hurt that the NBA's best player calls Akron home.
LeBron James keeps close tabs on the Zips -- and one of his high school coaches.
"I'm following them a lot," said James, who won two state titles playing for Dambrot at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. "They're on top of the MAC and they're playing some really, really good ball right now. I'm extremely happy for them. I wish I could get back home and get to a game soon. But they're doing some good things and I hope it continues."
James is a regular visitor in the summer, often playing pickup games at Rhodes Arena with Akron's players, who embrace him like a teammate.
"It's one of coolest things in the world," said guard Brian Walsh, a transfer from Xavier. "For us, he's the (Michael) Jordan of our generation and he's coming out here in the summer, rolling up in his cars. He knows us by name and he's playing open gym with us as just another guy.
"I don't think too many schools in the country can say that that they're playing with arguably the best player ever to play the game. He brings a lot of attention to our program, and we appreciate everything he does for us."
Dambrot has steadily built Akron, with an enrollment of just under 30,000 students, into a mid-major power that may be able to someday stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Gonzaga, Butler and Creighton. One of just seven schools to win at least 22 games in each of the past seven seasons, Akron made the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and 2011, but the Zips were beaten in the first round.
Akron's on a mission to go further.
Akron certainly looks as if it can compete with the big boys. With Marshall, his 6-foot-11 freshman backup Pat Forsythe, 6-7 Demetrius "Tree" Treadwell, 6-7 Nick Harney and the 6-5 Walsh, the Zips are an imposing group.
"We're very big in the gym," point guard Alex Abreu said. "Except for me and coach D."
"We deserve more respect than we have gotten," he said. "We have a wonderful coach and a wonderful program. Our fans are finally starting to come through, and I think it's something the world should see."