I started to write my “keys to the season” last weekend — before Kent State’s first game.
Then I decided to wait until I saw this team in action.
I’m glad I did. It’s a very different team with a very different style of play. It certainly will be a different kind of season.
So after three games and a 1-2 record, what can we figure out?
KSU played pretty well in its first two games — a close win and a close loss, and looked consistent. Then came the 86-68 loss at IPFW, in which KSU looked very different and not very good. So this column is quite tentative, and we’ll revisit it after the non-conference season.
Kent State is in its fourth season under head coach Danny O’Banion. So far her teams have gone 3-27, 7-23 and 5-25. I’d argue last year’s team was better than the 2113-14 one, but it had a tougher schedule, the MAC was better, and it played too many road games.
Over the last three seasons, the Flashes have scored fewer than 55 points a game. They have been close to last in the MAC in three-point baskets per game. They’ve close to last in the MAC in turnovers and turnover margin.
And after saying all that, I think the key to this year may be defense.
I think the Flashes will score — they’re averaging 70.7 points a game against a below-average team (Colgate), a good team (Wright State) and a team that may be better than we thought (IPFW). That scoring average would have been second highest in the league last year. The team has quickness and plays fast. It has three players who could average in double figures. I don’t know about 70, but I can see them averaging in the 60s. How far into the 60s will go a long way in determining the season.
But the concern is the points they’ve given up — 76.7 points a game. In the first two games, they gave them up on the fast break. In the third, they were beaten in the half court. As I said, it’s going to take awhile to figure out this team. With 10 new players from last year, it’s going to take awhile for the team to figure out itself.
But here are my five keys to a .500 season, which would make me quite happy.
1. Hold teams under 64 points a game, the average in the MAC last season. Kent gave up almost 66 last season with a team that played a much slower game. I see three challenges:
• Keeping the other team’s fast break under control. Kent State was outscored 46-22 in fast-break points in its first two games. The Flashes outscored IPFW 12-4 on the break, but the Mastodons didn’t push the ball at all.
• Holding the other teams’ shooting percentage to below 40. Kent State came close last year at 41, which was 10th in the conference. Average in the MAC was about 39 percent. Colgate and Wright State shot 35 percent; IPFW shot 50. Again we’re left with the question about which team we saw last week is going to be the team we’ll see for most of the season.
• Controlling the other teams’ three-point shooting. Last year’s opponents made almost 35 percent of their three-pointers, which put Kent second to last in the MAC. Again Kent’s first week leaves us a puzzle: the Flashes held Colgate and Wright State to a total of 9 for 46 from three-point distance (20 percent). IPFW was 12 of 24. But no matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of three-point shots against the Flashes. It’s pretty clear opponents are going to shoot the three until Kent proves consistently it can stop them.
2. Score 64 points a game. KSU has to come close to breaking even in scoring to break even in wins and losses. Scoring a more means winning a little more — the MAC was so balanced in the middle of the league last year that statistically every additional point per game equaled one more victory. To reach 64 points (nine per game more than last season), the Flashes need to:
• Get at least 36 points a game from its “big three” — junior guard Larissa Lurken, redshirt freshman wing Tyra James and sophomore forward Jordan Korinek. By recent standards, that’s a lot to ask; Lurken is the only player in the last four years to average in double digits (11.1 last season). But so far, Lurken and James are averaging 14 and Korinek 12.3.
• Get 28 points from everyone else. At least eight have to come from point guard. Neither sophomore starter Naddiyah Cross nor Mikell Chinn, last year’s starter, scored much last season. Teams barely guarded Chinn. Cross has been much more aggressive this season, scoring a career high 16 at IPFW and averaging just over 10. So now we’re down to needing 20 points from Kent’s second forward and the bench. Junior college transfer Chelsi Watson, the starter at forward, has had 2, 11 and 8 in her three games. An athletic 5-10, she can has shown she can score inside and from offensive rebounds. Sophomore forward McKenna Stephens, who has missed the first three games with a knee injury, averaged about 5 a game last season. That leaves unproven players to provide the last 10. O’Banion is counting on Megan Carter, a freshman who was a big scorer in high school. But Carter went to the floor hard in the IPFW game; it’s unclear how badly she was hurt. Freshman Alexa Golden averaged 16 in high school and scored 11 in the opener. But she has just three since. Keziah Lewis was a big scorer in junior college but has just six points through three games (in about 9 minutes a game).
Find three-point shooters besides Lurken. Kent State was dead last in the conference with 3.2 threes a game last season. Average in the conference was about six. That’s nine points right there, which would take Kent over our 64 a game goal. Lurken was sixth in the MAC last season with 2.1 three-pointers a game. But you can do the math; that meant the entire rest of the team averaged one three-point basket a game. Lurken has six (still two a game) this season, but four came in the opener. James, Cross and Golden all have two each so far. Lurken is averaging about five three-points shots per game (down from almost seven). The rest of the team is averaging eight shots — lots more than last season. But the Flashes are still being outscored 75-39 from distance. That’s a lot of points to make up.
3. Break even on turnovers. That sounds like a huge challenge; Kent State has had a margin of at least a negative five for the last four years and been close to last in the MAC every year. But the Flashes had a plus-five margin in each of its first two games. Then they were negative eight against IPFW. And they’ve been outscored 67-43 off turnovers. That won’t win games.
4. Make two-third of their foul shots. The Flashes up-tempo offense has generated almost 24 free throws a game, 15 more than last year and highest in the MAC so far. But they’ve made only 63 percent of them. That’s just 1 percentage point higher than last year, when KSU was last in the conference by a wide margin. They lost at least five games last season because of missed free throws.
5. Come close to breaking even in rebounding. So far the Flashes are minus six per game. They were routed on the board by Colgate and Wright State but even with IPFW.
There’s a pretty obvious pattern here. If Kent State approaches the conference averages statistically, they’ll approach .500.
Is it possible? I think Kent State has more talent, especially with James on the court. Korinek, Cross and Lurken should be better.
I’m pretty sure they’ll win 10, which would be twice as many as last year. I think the personnel is better; the schedule is better (mostly because of eight home games compared to three). Fifteen wins? They just need to be average, but it’s been five long years since KSU was there.
Could they be a contender in the MAC? Only if everything came together perfectly. It did for Ohio last season, which went from 9-21 in 2013-14 to 27-5. Nobody predicted that last year. Don’t predict it for Kent this year. Just be thrilled if it happens.