5 keys to the MAC season

As KSU prepares for its MAC opener at Central Michigan Saturday, let’s revisit my keys to the season posted after their opening week.

They hold up pretty well — and, for the most part, show why KSU is 3-7 so far.

Here is the updated version:

  1. Improve the defense. In November, I said — surprisingly, considering how much trouble KSU has had scoring recently — that defense was critical. I still think so.

KSU has given up 70.9 points a game, second to last in the MAC. My goal was 64 a game.

The Flashes’ new match-up zone defense is very much a work in progress. Teams are shooting 43.6 percent against the Flashes, which ranks KSU last in the conference. My goal was to keep that percentage below 40.

KSU’s outside defense has been inconsistent — good perimeter passing has set up three-point shots and killed the Flashes in several games. But on average, Kent opponents have made 31.1 percent of their three-pointers. That’s seventh in the conference, and it would be considerably better if you took away bad games against Youngstown State and IPFW.

But that means opponents have made 51.3 percent of their two-point shots. When the Flashes have extended their zone to stop the three, opponents have been able to get inside easily.

What to do? O’Banion says the team has to get used to the defense, to recognize patterns and to trust teammates.

2. Diversify the scoring. My goal was for KSU to score 64 points a game, and the Flashes have surpassed it. They average 66.

KSU started the season with the idea of a “big three” on offense — forward Jordan Korinek, junior guard Larissa Lurken and redshirt freshman wing Tyra James.

The Flashes have evolved into a team that looks for Korinek inside first. That’s worked — sometimes. Korinek leads the team in scoring at 16.0 per game and is making 57 percent of her shots (third in the conference). But teams have worked to deny her the ball, and when they succeed, KSU can look lost.

Lurken had been primarily an outside scorer in her first two seasons, but she’s led KSU’s dribble-drive offense by aggressively going to the basket. One evidence of that is that she leads the team in foul shots with 52. She averages 14 points a game. Lurken has been inconsistent on three-pointers, but more on that in a minute.

James has struggled. She looked very good in Kent’s exhibition and first two games. But since she’s averaged less than 8 points a game. Her style is to force the action. She leads the team in shots taken but averages only 31 percent from the field. She leads the team in turnovers. She didn’t start KSU’s last game against Brown.

Still we need to remember she’s just played just 10 college games after missing all last season with a knee injury. I remember how much Korinek struggled early last season. As a freshman, she went 6 for 32 from the season’s second through seventh game and didn’t really figure things out until the third conference game.

James, for all her struggles, is ahead of where Korinek was at this point last season. If she improves as much as Korinek did, it could make all the difference on offense.

James, Lurken and Korinek can make a potent threesome. They have such different styles that they should be able to give teams problems.

In my early season keys, I said KSU would need 36 points from the three. They’re actually getting 38.

Elsewhere, point guard Naddiyah Cross averages 7.2 points a game. That’s the minimum KSU needs from her. At times, she’s aggressively gone to the basket, and she has scored in double figures four times. But she didn’t score at all in KSU’s last two games (though she had 12 assists against Brown). Last year teams barely guarded point Mikell Chinn, and it made things horribly difficult for KSU’s post players. That can’t happen again.

Stephens missed the first five games with a knee injury and is getting back in shape. She had 9 and 11 points in KSU’s last two games. It would be great if she averaged 9 a game.

3. Find bench scoring. 

Freshman Alexa Golden has moved into the starting line-up but averages just 3.6 points per game. Watson started well but has averaged 3.4 over the last five games.

Keziah Lewis was a big scorer in junior college but has scored only 21 points in 88 minutes. Freshman guard Taylor Parker had one good game, and freshman guard Paige Salisbury has taken only seven shots in 100 minutes.

The Flashes miss freshman Megan Carter, who is lost for the season with a knee injury. She was a big high school scorer and counted on to add punch.

Somebody has to step up.

4. At least be respectable from three-point distance. 

KSU is last in the MAC in three-point shooting percentage (25.2) and second to last in three-pointers per game (4.0). The Flashes were 8 of 26 (30 percent)  in their last game against Brown, which is OK, though probably too many shots for this team. In their opener against Colgate, they were 7 of 17. In between, they were 25 of 116 (21.6 percent). That is a receipe for another single-digit-victory season.

Lurken hasn’t quite been the same three-point shooter she was in her first two years — 29.7 percent (about 2 percentage points under her career average) and about 1.9 three-pointers a game (slightly less than previous years). She’s been wildly inconsistent — 5 of 12 against Brown but 1 of 10 against Minnesota, 2 of 10 against Cleveland State. She’s taken five or fewer three-point shots in half of KSU games as opponents focus on her as KSU’s only outside threat. It would be great if she could settle into a solid 4 for 11 average.

My earlier post said Lurken needed help on distance shooting; last year the entire rest of the team averaged just one three a game. Sadly, it’s not there yet. More players have taken three-pointers — Cross 22, Golden and James 21 — but none of the three has made 25 percent.

O’Banion says the strategy is to develop Golden and Lewis, who made 31 percent of her threes her first year of junior college and 21 percent her second. She’s 3 for 10 at KSU.

5. Rebound better.

KSU is last in the MAC in rebounding margin at -3.3 per game. Nine of the other 11 conference teams have positive rebounding margins (Ohio is -2.5, Buffalo -0.4). KSU has outrebounded only two Division I opponents.

Part of the problem is height. Korinek (6-foot-2) leads the team with 7.5 rebounds per game. Only Stephens among the regulars is above 6 foot. She’s averaged 5 a game over her last three games. James (5-foot-11, 5.4 rebounds a game) and Watson (5-10, 3.8 rebounds) play bigger than their size, but the Flashes have nothing like the dominance 6-4 Cici Shannon brought to the court last year.

As big a factor, though, may be the zone defense. Zones make it harder for a player to find an opponent to block out. One unusual statistic has been that five opponent guards have had double-digit rebounds. A couple of those guards have been all-America candidates, but I think the statistic tells us something.

Finally, some nice things — things we haven’t had to worry much about.

  • Turnovers. Kent State is third in the MAC with a plus-1.6 turnover margin. I’m still amazed when I write that. The Flashes have had a margin of at least a negative five for the last four years and been close to last in the MAC every year. The improvement is in part because of…
  • Steals, where the Flashes lead the MAC and are 24th in the country with 11.1 per game.
  • Foul shooting. KSU was dead last in foul shooting in the MAC last season at 61 percent. They’re at 68.2 percent and because of their dribble-drive offense, they’ve taken 3.5 more per game. (It had been a lot more until they had only five free throws against Brown and 12 against Youngstown State.) Korinek and Lurken are in the top 12 in the conference in free-throw percentage.

The bottom line:

Earlier, I predicted 10 to 15 wins. That’s looking too optimistic. They’ll have to go 7-11 in the MAC to reach 10 wins, and that’s two more conference victories than they’ve had in five years. And the conference is better.

15 wins would require a 12-6  MAC record. Unless many things improve substantially, I can’t see that.

In my earlier “keys to the season,” I said the Flashes needed average statistics to have a .500 season. Here’s how far they are from that:

  • Scoring: KSU average 66.0, MAC average 67.
  • Defense: KSU 70.9, MAC 65.4.
  • Free throw percentage: KSU 68.2, MAC 70.0.
  • Field goal percentage: KSU 39.5, MAC 40.6.
  • Field goal defense: KSU 43.6, MAC 37.0.
  • Three-point percentage: KSU 25.2, MAC 31.5.
  • Three-point defense: KSU 31.1, MAC 30.0.
  • Three-point baskets: KSU 4.0 per game, MAC 6.3.
  • Rebounding margin: KSU -3.3, MAC +2.8.
  • Blocked shots: KSU 1.2 per game, MAC 3.0.
  • Assists: KSU 13.6 per game, MAC 13.0.
  • Steals: KSU 11.1, Mac 7.4.
  • Turnover margin: KSU +1.8, MAC -0.6.
  • Assist/turnover ratio: KSU 0.8, MAC 0.8.

It’s defense, three-point shooting and rebounding. Add more diversity on offense. Improve there, and a .500 conference season isn’t impossible.

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