“If you’d have told me at the beginning of the year,” women’s basketball coach Todd Starkey said in an interview this week, “that we were going to be 6-6 going into conference play, I’d have said, ‘I’ll take that right now.‘”
Starkey’s team — with essentially the same players who went 6-23 a year ago — has surprised its fans, the league, and likely the players and coaches themselves.
In non-conference games, the Flashes split against two teams picked to win their leagues, beat two teams picked in the first division their leagues, and took another to overtime.
They struggled against their big-time opposition, losing to Baylor, Iowa and Minnesota by an average of 36 points. But those teams have a combined record of 30-11, and only two mid-majors have come within 15 points of any of them.
Now comes the important part for KSU: the MAC season.
The Flashes open league play at home Saturday against Central Michigan, the conference preseason favorite. KSU’s record is ninth best in the 12-team MAC, its RPI is eighth best.
So can they keep the .500 season — which we barely dreamed about in October — going? Could they go beyond it?
The quick answer is that it’s certainly possible — as possible as their 6-6 non-conference record turned out to be. But the Flashes will have to do some things even better for the next two months.
So let’s revisit our “keys to the season” with an eye toward conference play. Here’s what I think Kent State has to do to be a .500 or better team in the MAC:
1. HOLD TEAMS UNDER 67 POINTS A GAME. Starkey emphasizes defense every time you talk to him. While the team and players are clearly better defenders than they’ve been in years, they’re not there yet. They’re allowing 70.5 points a game. Even adjusting for playing the three good Power Conference schools, the average is still 67.5. (“Adjusted” is a Starkey suggestion that we not count the games against Kent State’s best three and worst three opponents.)
Statistically, the difference is in shooting percentage. KSU opponents have made 42.1 percent of their shots, which is worst in the conference. (Adjusted it’s 40.2, which would only move the Flashes up to 10th.)
Current defensive average in the conference is about 37 percent. Last year’s average was about 39. So let’s make it a subgoal to hold opponents to 38 percent shooting.
Most of that is going to have to come by stopping two-point baskets, which means defending layups, mid-range jumpers and transition scoring.
The Flashes actually are doing pretty well at containing the three-point shot. They rank seventh in the conference at 30.9 percent; adjusted it’s 26.5 percent, which would be second. No opponent of any size has done better than 42.
KSU is actually doing considerably better than I thought on transition points. The Flashes actually have scored more fast break points against mid-majors than they give up (60-50). Points off turnovers are about even (143-142).
2. SCORE AT LEAST 67 POINTS PER GAME. The Flashes average 66.3, but the number jumps of 70.5 adjusted. (They scored just 51.3 against the power conference schools.) KSU’s shooting is about average, especially adjusted. So subgoal one is to average about 39 percent shooting.
Kent’s advantage this season in scoring has come at the foul line, where the Flashes average five more free throws and five more attempts than their opponents. Subgoal two: Keep that five free-throw margin.
Kent’s three-point shooting percentage is markedly better this season, and the Flashes are averaging 0.6 more a game than last year (1.5 adjusted). So let’s match that 5.7 three-point mark to reach our scoring goal.
3. FIND MORE SCORERS. This was a subcategory earlier in the season and becomes more important now. The Flashes have only two players averaging in double figures and only one other averaging more than six.
Senior guard Larissa Lurken has been tremendous — 21.3 points per game, eighth in the country and seven more points than last season. I’m not sure she can keep that up as other teams build game plans to stop her.
Junior forward Jordan Korinek scores 11.7 a game. But that’s four below her average a year ago on a team that’s scoring seven to nine points more points. A goal has to be to get Korinek back near last season’s average.
Starkey says he’s like four players close to double figures in conference play. I’d be happy with three more players around eight points. That would have to come from freshman guard Ali Poole (now 7.1 points per game), junior forward McKenna Stephens (5.8), junior point guard Naddiyah Cross (5.6), backup post player Chelsi Watson (4.9) and sophomore guard Alexa Golden (4.2). All have scored in double figures at least twice this season. But someone is going to have to be consistent.
4. BEAT THE TURNOVER MONSTER. One thing that sadly hasn’t changed a whole lot under Starkey is the team’s problem with turnovers. The Flashes have been close to the bottom of the MAC in turnovers and turnover margin for six years. They’re currently tied for ninth in turnovers (18.2), and 11th in margin (-2.1). Adjusted numbers are a little better — 16.5 in turnovers, which would be about ninth — and -1.5 in margin, which still would be 11th. It would be a lot easier to have a .500 season if they could break even.
5. BELIEVE THEY CAN WIN ANYWHERE. The last two early season keys were “win some on the road” and “believe in themselves.” The Flashes broke their 16-game road losing streak against a solid Wright State team. Obviously they’re going to have to win three to five games away from Kent to hit .500.
The Kent State players believe, and that may be their and Starkey’s greatest accomplishment. Listen to them in interviews, and you know that they think they can win. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard that confidence. Now they have to prove it again.
The bottom line
9-9 in the MAC is no more out of reach than 6-6 was in the non-conference season. That would be a 15-15 season and far beyond my preseason expectations.
Kent and the MAC
The Flashes could go anywhere from 3-15 to 12-6. That’s last place to fourth place.
The 3-15 scenario assumes beating Miami, Eastern and BG only at home. That essentially would be a regression to the last five seasons and be a horrible disappointment.
But look at the league RPIs:
- Buffalo (10-0) – 16.
- Ohio (9-2) – 83.
- Toledo (9-2) -106.
- Northern Illinois (7-4) – 123.
- Central Michigan (8-4) – 185.
- Western Michigan (9-2) – 186.
- Akron (7-4) – 196.
- Kent State (6-6) – 204.
- Miami (6-7) – 233.
- Ball State (7-5) – 234.
- Eastern Michigan (5-7) – 249.
- Bowling Green (4-8) – 277.
Now assume this as a base:
KSU beats Miami, Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green home and away. They’re significantly ahead of those teams in RPI and have a better record.
The Flashes split with Akron; they have about the same rank.
That’s seven wins. For more, they might (in order of possibility):
- Beat Ball State at Ball State.
- Beat Northern Illinois at KSU.
- That would be 9-9.
- Beat Akron at Akron.
- Beat Central Michigan in Kent.
- Win at Western Michigan.
- Win at Northern Illinois. (Actually I think Western is the better team.)
- Win one of the six games against Toledo, Buffalo or Ohio.
All that goes perfectly, and it’s 14-4.
Don’t count on it. But I can say most of it is at least slightly plausible with a straight face for the first time in six years.
Look at Kent State’s non-conference record against mid-majors.
Western Kentucky is picked to win the Conference USA, a better league than the MAC. Florida Gulf Coast is picked to win the Atlantic Sun, not quite as good a league.
Those teams certainly are similar to Central and Western, though probably not as good as Buffalo, Ohio and Toledo at this point.
Detroit is picked second, Youngstown State fourth and Wright State fifth in the Horizon League, not as good a league. Robert Morris was picked second in the Northeastern Conference, a fairly weak league. But say those teams are similar to Northern Illinois, Central, Western, Akron and maybe Ball State.
Bradley (Missouri Valley), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley) and Fort Wayne (Summit) are second-division teams. Call them equivalent to Miami, Eastern and Bowling Green.
In the non-conference season, Kent State proved it belonged on the same court with all of those teams, except for a bad loss at Detroit.
Now it has to prove things on the court to the MAC.
Starkey on conference play
(From an interview this week)
“So much of conference play is matchups. Perfect evidence is last season. You had by far the best team in the league (Ohio), and they couldn’t get past Buffalo because the matchup wasn’t favorable to them.
“That’s what conference play comes down to. Unless you’re just more talented than everybody, it’s going to come down to small things, and a lot of it comes down to matchups.
“There are teams we’re going to play against that we’re probably going to look bad against because the matchup isn’t favorable to us. There are going to be other teams we may look better against.
“I don’t know who those people are yet. I’m kind of flying blind in this because it’s my first time through. It’s like a first-year teacher. Every lesson plan is new. The second year you can go back and revise, but you sort of know what works and what doesn’t work.
“It will be interesting. I’m excited for it.
“But we’re still on a path here. We’re definitely far from our best basketball, and I hope that we can stay on course to getting to our best basketball by the end of February.
“I still don’t quite yet know who we are compared to the MAC.
“What I do know is that: That before we went to Iowa, only two teams in the MAC had below a .500 record. You look at some conferences, and you have two teams with a winning record, and everybody else has a losing record.
“As I’m watching results, the MAC is going to be really, really tough. I don’t think you’re going to have a runaway team — Central Michigan, really good; Toledo, really good; Ohio, really good; Buffalo, really good.”
Buffalo wins big one and other MAC scores
Undefeated Buffalo may have won its biggest game of the season Thursday when it beat Fordham (9-4) 58-54 at Fordham’s own holiday tournament. Fordham has an RPI of 104. Buffalo trailed by five points after the first quarter, but came back to take a seven-point in the fourth quarter. It held on when freshman center Summer Hemphill took a charge on a drive that could been the tying basket with 1.1 seconds to go. (Game story)
Buffalo is 10-0, the best start in school history. The Bulls get another big test tomorrow when they play Harvard (10-1) in the finals of the tournament. Harvard’s RPI is 43; Buffalo’s is 16.
On Wednesday, both Ohio and Central Michigan were upset in away games.
North Carolina A&T (3-9) 63, Ohio (9-2) 57, in North Carolina.
Middle Tennessee State (5-6) 79, Central Michigan (8-4) 69 at Middle Tennessee.
Division II Malone (6-4) 78, Bowling Green (4-8) 65 at BG.
Miami (6-7) 70, Division II Cedarville (6-4) 57 at Miami.
Ball State (7-5) 93, Division II Urbana (2-5) 49 at Ball State.
Akron (7-4), NAIA school Ohio Christian (9-6) 52 at Akron.