Zeke Marshall already has grown accustomed to answering the question that likely will follow him around throughout his college career: Why Akron?
As the No. 43 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, Marshall received attention from plenty of big-time programs. One of the offers came from Pittsburgh, his hometown school and an annual Big East title contender.
Marshall, a 7-foot center from the Pittsburgh suburb of McKeesport, turned down all those schools and became the first top-100 recruit to sign with a Mid-American Conference program since Rivals.com began its ranking system in 2003.
"It was my fit," Marshall said. "That's all I can say. It just felt like me. You know when it's your school. The coaches were nice. The campus was nice. The teammates.
"I just liked the overall feeling."
He continued to feel that way even as people tried to talk him out of it. Marshall would find himself walking around a grocery store or just about any other public place when a stranger would approach and ask about his height and whether he played basketball. Then they'd ask where he would be going to school. As soon as Marshall mentioned Akron, they'd wonder why.
"They'll say, 'You should have gone to Pitt,' or, 'You should have gone there,' " Marshall said. "They don't understand the reasons."
Of course, the complaints usually came from strangers or distant acquaintances. Marshall's friends and family members understand his decision.
"Anybody who really knows Zeke knows he's a man of his own," said Marshall's mother, Nicole Bozeman. "He loved Akron. The first time he went to visit, I picked him up and said, 'How did the trip go?' He had this gleam in his eyes."
Akron fans might have a similar expression when they see Marshall on the court. Marshall didn't put up overwhelming statistics in high school, averaging 14 points and nine rebounds per game as a senior. But he also blocked eight shots per game and should offer an immediate defensive presence for a team that lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season.
Leaving the 'Big Six'
Akron center Zeke Marshall isn't the only top prospect who resisted the temptation of the major conferences. Eighteen recruits in the Rivals150 signed with schools outside the "Big Six" conferences. A handful went to traditional powers Memphis, Gonzaga and UNLV, but some of the others chose much more surprising destinations.
"His length will be so unusual for that conference," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "He'll be an anomaly. He could really have a big impact."
Marshall could have an even bigger impact in future seasons because his upside extends even farther than his 7-5 wingspan. Marshall has gained attention thus far mainly because of his shot-blocking ability, but Akron coach Keith Dambrot said he believes his prize prospect also provides plenty of scoring potential. Marshall, a late bloomer, says he didn't start playing basketball seriously until the eighth grade.
Meyer noted that the biggest questions surrounding Marshall involve his strength and stamina. Marshall weighs just 215 pounds, though he wants to get up to 230 by September.
"He's come a long way, but we feel he's at about 50 percent of what he can be," Dambrot said. "He has improvement to make in all areas, but he's probably a little bit better offensively than most people realize. It's going to depend on how badly he wants to be a great player, but he has all the ability to be as good an offensive player as he is a defensive player."
Marshall said he chose Akron at least in part because of his relationship with Dambrot, who perhaps is best known as the guy who coached LeBron James for a few years in high school. Marshall participated in the Nike LeBron James Skills Academy on Akron's campus last summer.
But the tie to James wasn't the only reason Marshall felt a connection to Dambrot. Marshall appreciated the way Dambrot got his point across without using an inordinate amount of profanity.
"There comes a point where enough is enough," Marshall said. "With so many coaches, I knew I wouldn't get along with them because I didn't like their personality at all. All that swearing, there's no need for that. I know people who constantly swear when there's no need. ? People think if you scream, it will get into your head, but it usually just drives you away.
"[Dambrot] gets mad. I heard him swear a couple of times, but he has a personality where he really relates to his players."
Marshall's relationship with Dambrot was only one of the reasons he chose Akron. As a guy who talks about computers as passionately as he discusses basketball, Marshall liked that Akron offers a major in information systems. Marshall also wasn't giving mere lip service when he talked about the beauty of Akron's campus; he really considered the look of the campus a major factor in his decision.
"One of his priorities was that [his school] had to have a true campus environment," Bozeman said. "One of the main reasons he didn't choose a school like Pitt or Duquesne was it was more like a city. He didn't want that city feel. He wanted to be on a campus where he could sit on the quad and all that stuff."
Marshall said he believes Akron can adequately prepare him for the NBA because it offers him a chance to make an instant impact. Akron also offers him a realistic shot at reaching the NCAA tournament. The Zips return four starters from a team that went 23-13 last season and earned the school's first NCAA bid since 1986. Marshall should immediately upgrade the defense of a team that ranked 10th in the 12-team MAC in blocks last season.
All those factors explain why Dambrot always felt confident Marshall would resist the lure of playing for a school from a more prestigious conference.
"I felt pretty good, actually," Dambrot said. "We just felt like we had a good relationship with him. He liked the chance of immediate playing time and the chance to build the program around him. He knew he could get to where he wanted to get from here. In some ways, he had a better chance from a mid-major rather than a high major."
Dambrot also noted that Marshall's personality might be a better fit at Akron. He referred to Marshall as an old-school type of guy who doesn't do a whole lot of talking. Nor is he the type of guy who concerns himself with what other people are saying about him.
That type of approach should help Marshall deal with the expectations he will face as the rare top-50 prospect at a MAC school.
"I wouldn't call it pressure, but I feel something," Marshall said. "Like it or not, I have people counting on me. I have people saying to me that you need to be able to do something. You're coming in and you need to be able to do something and give our team something."
Marshall admits he really didn't know anything about Akron until the Zips started recruiting him, but he felt drawn to the school as soon as he visited the campus. As he got ready to make his choice, his mother offered the following advice: Imagine you aren't a 7-foot basketball player being recruited by schools across the nation. Imagine that you're just Zeke Marshall, a computer programming student. Where do you see yourself spending the next four years?
That made Marshall's decision easy. Marshall couldn't imagine himself anywhere but Akron, no matter how much rival coaches tried to picture him somewhere else.