CLEVELAND -- Akron's special season has hit a stunning snag.
Zips starting point guard Alex Abreu pleaded not guilty to trafficking and possession of marijuana on Friday, hours before his teammates lost to rival Kent State in their regular-season finale without the junior floor general and inspirational leader. Abreu has been suspended indefinitely, pending the outcome of the police investigation.
Abreu appeared in court via closed-circuit TV from jail in Akron Municipal Court. On Thursday, the 21-year-old and Austin L. Durgala, 18, were arrested by police for allegedly accepting a package containing 5 pounds of marijuana. According to police, narcotic-unit detectives arrested Abreu and Durgala at the latter's residence.
Abreu posted $5,000 bond and was released from the Summit County Jail at around 6 p.m. He offered only one "no comment" to reporters before he and Durgala got in a car and were driven away. Abreu is due back in court March 22, when the Zips hope to be playing in the NCAA tournament.
But without Abreu, Akron's run to make the NCAA field for the third time since 2009 will be much more challenging. The Zips lost 68-64 to Kent State.
Following the game, Akron coach Keith Dambrot wrestled with his emotions as he offered support to Abreu.
"I felt like my son got arrested," Dambrot said. "It's a heartbreaking thing. I love that kid and I'm going to stick behind him. It's my obligation to stick behind him and get him through this difficult time."
Although the Zips (24-6, 14-2) recently won 19 straight games and will be the No. 1 seed in next week's Mid-American Conference tournament, they'll need to win the tourney to get the league's automatic NCAA bid. If Akron doesn't capture the championship, there's no guarantee they'll get one of the coveted at-large bids awarded by the selection committee.
The MAC has not had two teams in the NCAA tourney since 1999.
With experience, size, balance and depth, these Zips have all the makings of one that could bust brackets in March. Abreu, a three-year starter who found his way to Akron from Puerto Rico, averages 10.3 points and 6.3 assists, many of them going to 7-foot center Zeke Marshall, who gives Akron an inside presence to play with any team from any conference.
Beyond his stat line, the fiery Abreu has had a steadying hand for the Zips, who had the nation's longest winning streak before they were beaten last week at Buffalo -- Akron's first loss since Dec. 15.
Akron had lost a pair of nonconference games while Abreu was hurt, and Dambrot was hoping the NCAA selection committee would take that into account if the Zips were under consideration. Now, assuming Abreu's suspension continues, his off-the-floor issues could keep Akron out unless they can avoid being knocked out of the always competitive MAC tournament at Quicken Loans Arena.
During an interview with The Associated Press last month, Dambrot praised Abreu's toughness for playing through a sprained ankle earlier this season.
Abreu said he didn't even know which state Akron was in before he visited the school, and was proud that the Zips were finally getting some national recognition because of their winning streak.
"We deserve more respect than we have gotten," he said. "We have a wonderful coach and a wonderful program."
Freshman Carmelo Betancourt started in place of Abreu against Kent State and had five points and four assists. Betancourt, who is also from Puerto Rico, had made one start previously this season and was averaging 1.8 points and 1.4 assists.