As I did last season, I waited for a week into the season before I wrote my “keys to the season” post in order to get a look at the Flashes’ new style of play.
(Remember they had one last year, too — a dribble-drive offense and a match-up zone defense.)
Once again, it is, as new coach Todd Starkey often tells us, an entirely different offensive and defensive system.
So far, it’s working great. The Flashes are 2-0 with a win over a below-average team (Bradley) by 25 and an above-average team (Eastern Kentucky) by 13.
But we were encouraged after the first two games last season, too, when KSU beat Colgate by 5 and lost to Wright State by 5. Colgate finished the season 7-23. Wright State was 24-11.
The giveaway last season came in the third game, in which KSU was pounded 86-68 at IPFW. The Flashes never did win a game on the road.
So, as Starkey says, the team is still a work in progress, and we’ll revisit these keys after the non-conference season.
The flip answer to the the strategy for the season is simple: Keep doing what they’ve been doing.
Scoring? KSU has averaged 78.5 points a game — 17 more than they did last year and actually more than any team in the league last season (though two other teams right now average more than Kent).
Defense? The Flashes’ have allowed 59.5 points a game — 12 fewer than last season.
Rebounding? A plus 14.5 margin —16 better and double of any 2015-16 MAC team.
Field goal percentage, three-point shooting, foul shooting? All better. Way better. Same for field goal and three-point defense.
Turnover total is down about three, turnover margin up two. Steals are up one. (Stats through two games.)
But it’s just two games. Those numbers can’t possible last. This is not Connecticut.
“It’s nice that a lot of people are excited, but I have to be quick to say that we have a lot of things to get better,” Starkey said Thursday. “We’ve played well in spots. But we’re still learning a lot of things.”
Starkey said the team’s level of offensive execution has been better than he might have expected this early in the season. But, he said, “the power of the scouting report” could make things harder as opponents have video of the Flashes to prepare.
So what do they really need to do to be a .500 or better team this season. Here are my keys:
- HOLD TEAMS UNDER 67 POINTS A GAME. We’ll start with defense because that’s where Starkey starts, pushing his man-to-man base in every practice. 67 was average in the MAC last season. It’s also 4 points better than Kent State did. Doing that means:
• Keeping opponents’ shooting percentage under 40. It was 43.4 last season, a distant last in the conference.
• Controlling opponents’ three-point shooting, which was 34.4 percent in 2015-16. Other teams made almost eight per game last season, which put KSU close to the bottom of the MAC in both those categories.
So far Kent State has held its two opponents to 38.5 percent shooting, 27.3 percent from three-point range.
• Slowing down transition points. My biggest concern from the first two games came in the third quarter of the Eastern Kentucky game, when the Colonels put a lot of pressure on the ball. Kent State was outscored 10-0 on fast break points and 11-1 on points off turnovers that quarter. The Flashes steadied and the fourth quarter was even, but there’s no doubt in my mind that teams will harass Kent ball handlers until they prove they can handle it.
2. SCORE AT LEAST 67 POINTS PER GAME. The offense has looked very good at times. The 80 and 77 points the Flashes have scored are the second and third most the team has put up in five years. They averaged 61 a year ago. To be better, they have to:
• Get a total of 30 to 35 points a night from senior guard Larissa Lurken and junior forward Jordan Korinek, the teams’ leading scorers a year ago.
• Get steady contributions from at least four other players. That probably starts with junior forward McKenna Stephens and freshman guard Ali Poole. So a couple of people needs to average seven points a game or so from this group: redshirt freshman Megan Carter, sophomore Alexa Golden, junior forward Zenobia Bess and senior forward Chelsi Watson. Point guard Naddiyah Cross is a special case; she scored 9 points in the opener and 2 in the second game. She’s also had 15 assists in two games. She has to be enough of a threat to score so opponents can’t back off guarding her and pack the center.
• Make enough three-point baskets to keep the other team honest. Kent State has been close to dead last in three-point goals per game and in three-point field goal percentage for five years. That’s mostly because their only really threat was Lurken, who’s likely to become the team’s career leader in three-point shots this season. So teams tried to smother her and let anyone else try to shoot. Now the Flashes have Poole, who looks like a good outside shooter. In Starkey’s offense, you can expect Korinek and Stephens to shoot the three-point shot, too, and so far they look pretty good at it. KSU has averaged about four three-point baskets a game for three years. That has to get up to close to six. (It’s five-and-a-half through two games.)
3. KEEP TURNOVERS UNDER CONTROL. The Flashes have made more turnovers than every team in the league in what seems like forever. Getting it down just three from last season — from 18 to 15 a game — would make a big difference.
4. WIN SOME ON THE ROAD. All six games KSU won last season came at the M.A.C. Center. Their first two games (and wins) this season have been at home. Obviously that can’t happen for a season and approach .500. “Defense travels,” Starkey likes to say. Shooters may struggle on an unfamiliar basket, but the defensive system and effort doesn’t have to change.
5. BELIVE IN THEMSELVES, their system and their coaches. Listen to Lurken, who’s played on teams that won only 18 of 71 games in four years.
“I think we’re a lot better than sometimes we think we are,” she said in a preseason interview. “We have to believe that. If we push ourselves, we can actually get there.”
And after their first win: “What we worked on in practice translated to the game.”
Confidence can mean two or three extra victories.
The bottom line
Prediction? If these first two games mean anything, a .500 season isn’t impossible.
The team plays a murderous non-conference schedule — No. 2 Baylor, two Big Ten teams, two more teams in the Gulf Coast Showcase that won at least 26 games last season. Robert Morris, Wright State and Youngstown State all won more than 20 games last season. Detroit was 15-15, fourth in the Horizon League and has all five starters back. IPFW ought to be beatable at Kent if the Flashes’ first two games were real.
So KSU has to win four of those non-conference games and break even in the MAC to reach .500 for the year. If the Flashes can win four more in the non-conference, they’ll have proven to me that they have a solid chance of winning at least half of their league games.
Could they be better than that? If, as Starkey said after Monday’s game, Eastern Kentucky is equivalent to a good MAC team, the answer is yes — assuming Kent State can keep improving. Starkey says he thinks Robert Morris and Detroit, the Flashes’ next two opponents, are better than Eastern. If they could win both, we may have a surprise team on our hands.
But right now my guess would be 11 to 13 wins (out of 30 games), with a .500 season within reach. Considering they haven’t won more than seven in five years, I’d take that.