When Akron point guard Alex Abreu was arrested and charged with trafficking five pounds of marijuana early this month, it appeared the Zips' NCAA hopes were up in smoke.

Averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 assists and hitting 39.4 percent of his 3-pointers, the junior from Puerto Rico was the heartbeat of the Akron offense. But two weeks after his suspension, the Zips are in Auburn Hills, Mich., without him, preparing for their NCAA opener against Virginia Commonwealth.

How Akron (26-6) got there had a lot to do with his inexperienced replacement, Carmelo Betancourt. The steady play of the 5-foot-11 freshman from Montrose Christian School in Rockville was key in Akron's 65-46 victory over perennial power Ohio in the Mid-American Conference title game.

Thursday against the vaunted Havoc defense of fifth-seeded VCU (26-8), Betancourt will be put to the ultimate test in the fourth start of his career.

No. 5 VCU vs. No. 12 Akron
When » Thursday, 9:45 p.m.
Where » The Palace of Auburn Hills,
Auburn Hills, Mich.
Shaka Smart's VCU (26-8) leads the nation in steals (11.8 pg) for the second straight year and has proven the last two seasons to be one of the nation's best NCAA teams. Sophomore Treveon Graham (15.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg) is the top scorer. But plenty of the focus on Thursday will be on 6-9 junior Juvonte Reddic (14.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg), who will have to deal with Akron's 7-foot star Zeke Marshall (13.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.7 bpg), whose presence is often felt more on defense. Another threat inside for Akron (26-6) is 6-7 junior Demetrius Treadwell (11.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg).

"The difficult thing is, when you have a really good team, you don't put people in dangerous positions," Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. "He wasn't going to play at crunch time because Alex was gonna play. That probably stunted his development. The lesson to be learned is that sometimes you have to look at people in difficult situations."

Betancourt thrived in a difficult situation on Saturday. Against a veteran Ohio backcourt that carried the Bobcats to the NCAA Sweet 16 last year, Betancourt collected five points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and just one turnover, doing a reasonable impersonation of his predecessor. He also helped suffocate Bobcat guards D.J. Cooper and Nick Kellogg, who were a combined 0-for-10 from beyond the arc and 1-for-14 overall for a combined five points.

"It wasn't pressure-filled," Betancourt told reporters after practice on Monday. "My game is the same. Play defense and be simple."

Betancourt, who is also from Puerto Rico and played on the national under-16 and under-19 teams, came to Montrose Christian to attract attention from colleges. He was drawn to Akron to serve as the understudy to Abreu. In Puerto Rico, the two were point guards at rival high schools. Now it's Betancourt's turn to get a crash course.

VCU promises to bring the heat on Thursday. None of the tactics will surprise Dambrot, a prot?g? and close friend of Smart, who was at Akron from 2003-06. Both were assistants in Smart's first year. When Dambrot took over in 2004, he kept him on the staff.

On Monday, Dambrot admitted to using some of Smart's defensive ploys.

"His calls are the same calls that we make. They double fist, that's our double fist. Their diamond is our diamond," Dambrot said. "He could probably coach my team. I could probably coach his team, that's how much we know about each other."

Thursday night Smart might even get a sense of d?j? vu watching Betancourt play. When he was at Montrose, Betancourt was often compared to former VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez. Smart doesn't want Betancourt to remind him too much of the ultra-composed Rodriguez. If that's the case, he'll be handling the Havoc too easily.

"They're going to try to speed us up, make us make mistakes. And we're gonna try to throw the ball to our big guys. It's as simple as that," Dambrot said. "It's a simplistic game. If they're successful in speeding us up and turning us over and making us take bad shots, they're going to win. If we get post touches we're gonna win."