If a Kent State goal was, as coach Todd Starkey said this week, to play “meaningful games in February,” how important is Saturday game at Buffalo?
This case for “meaningful”:
Kent State is in second place in the MAC East at 6-4 (12-10 overall). Buffalo, a preseason favorite, is in third at 5-5 (14-6 overall).
KSU is just a game out of first, where Ohio is 7-3. On Saturday, the Bobcats host Toledo, a 14-6 teams that has just beat Central Michigan and just beat Buffalo at Buffalo.
So it’s possible — though I wouldn’t say likely — that Kent State could be tied for first place on Saturday night. That hasn’t happened in February since 2005. Kent State had good teams after that under former coach Bob Lindsay, especially in the Lindsay Shearer era. But the Flashes were always chasing Bowling Green, which dominated the league in that period.
The Flashes have the fifth best record in the league. The top four teams get a first-round bye in the MAC tournament. One spot ahead of Kent State is Ohio.
The case that we’re premature:
It’s Feb. 3, not March 3.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in second place in early February,” Starkey said on Kent State’s weekly Flash Talk radio show Thursday. “It’s where you end of the season.”
There are still seven league games to go after Saturday.
The Flashes a very good chance of winning at least two (1-8 Eastern Michigan and 2-7 Akron at Kent). They have a good chance of winning three more (at Akron, at 1-8 Miami and at 1-8 Bowling Green).
Their other games are home and away against Buffalo — still a better team on paper — and a home game against Ohio, which has the best overall record in the league at 16-4. But KSU beat Ohio in Athens last month.
So my estimation is that Kent State could end the regular season anywhere between 10-8 (losing one of the four games against Akron, Miami and BG) and losing all three to Ohio and Buffalo) and 12-6 (sweeping the “likely” games and winning one of three against the good teams).
If they take two of three against Buffalo and Ohio, they’re 13-5 and likely to be MAC East champions.
It’s astounding even to write that, but it’s been an astounding season. KSU was 6-23 and last in the MAC last season with essentially the same players.
The case that Buffalo is more than just another February game:
One reason is seeding for the MAC tournament and tie breakers. If teams have the same conference record, the tie breaker is head-to-head competition. If either Kent or Buffalo sweeps the series, that team will almost certainly get the higher seed.
If they split, then it gets complicated with things like divisional record (KSU is currently 3-0 and Buffalo 2-1), then record against conference teams with the best record.
Buffalo is 1-1 against 7-3 Central Michigan, KSU is 0-1. Kent is 1-0 against 5-4 Toledo, Buffalo 0-2. Kent State has beaten Ohio on the road while Buffalo lost in Athens. Both teams play the Bobcats again at home.
Then there’s the mental and momentum. Kent State is 6-2 over its last eight games, the only losses being to league-leading Northern Illinois. That’s the second-best record in the league in that time (8-1 NIU, of course, has the best).
So the league still doesn’t quite know what to make of the Flashes. They’re clearly not the league doormat of the last five years. But are they a contender or a good second-rung team? Nobody knows. I certainly don’t. I don’t think the team does.
“It’s important for the girls to understand what they’ve accomplished to put themselves here,” Starkey said. “It’s a great motivator and can give confidence. At the same time, we have to continue to focus on what’s the next step in front of us. It’s what can we control and how can we get better.”
Saturday will tell us something. It’s not make or break. Even if the Flashes lose — and they certainly aren’t favored — and even if they finish behind Buffalo in the standings, they’re still almost certain to get a first-round home tournament game. That hasn’t happened in six years.
And who knows? Nobody expected KSU to beat Ohio at Ohio. Or even Western Michigan at Western Michigan. We really don’t know how good this team is yet.
In Buffalo, Kent State plays a team that won its first nine games this season. At that point, the Bulls were in the top 20 in the country in RPI ranking. Then they lost to Harvard, which is currently 16-1. In the MAC, Buffalo has lost at Ohio and at Central Michigan. They’ve lost at home to Ball State, Toledo and Northern Illinois.
KSU’s league losses are to Northern (twice), at Ball State and to Central Michigan at home.
Buffalo went 8-10 in the conference last season but won the MAC tournament, losing to Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Ohio had by far the best record in the league last season, but Buffalo beat the Bobcats three times.
“They have experience in these situations, and we don’t,” Starkey said after Wednesday’s win over Miami. “We’re going to have to earn everything we get up there. They’re going to come off the Toledo game (a 85-63 pounding), and they’ll be ready to play. And we’re going to have to execute a game plan, and we’re going to have to be good at in a tough place to play.”
Buffalo’s strength is defense and rebounding. The Bulls lead the MAC in scoring defense in overall games (59.8) and are fifth in conference games alone (66.7). They’re third in field goal defense and first in three-point defense overall (fifth and second in conference play).
They’re 10th in the nation in offensive rebounds. Again they’re much better overall (+8.5 in rebounding margin in all games, first in the MAC) than they are in league games (+2.7 and fourth).
Toledo solved the Bulls completely Wednesday, shooting 52 percent from the field and outrebounded them 44-34.
Statistically, Kent State is comparable in rebounding in conference games. The Flashes rank toward the bottom of the league in scoring defense at 75.6 points a game and are last in field goal and three-point defense. Part of that is skewed by the 191 points Northern Illinois scored in its two games against the Flashes.
KSU’s defense has been very good at times in the conference — at Ohio, at Western and against Toledo. But even outside of the NIU games, KSU gave up 54 percent shooting against Central Michigan and 50 percent against Ball State. On Wednesday Miami, a team near the bottom of the league is field goal offense, shot 57 percent in the first half. Kent State held the Redhawks to 35 percent in the second.
“The defensive side of the basketball is where games are going to be won and lost for us down the stretch,” Starkey said.
Buffalo’s top offensive threat is returning all-MAC guard JoAnna Smith, who is averaging 15.9 points a game. A year ago she scored 39 points against the Flashes in two games, both Buffalo wins. In Kent, Smith made 7 of 10 three-point shots. Stephanie Reid is one of the best point guards in the conference, leading the league in assists and assist-turnover ratio. Summer Hemphill, a 6-1 freshman, averages 7.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks a game.
Larissa Lurken continues to lead Kent State and the MAC in scoring, averaging 25.8 in conference games (23.1 overall). Jordan Korinek averages 18.6 in conference games only, which is sixth in the league. She had 21 and 12 rebounds against Miami and, importantly, just two fouls for the second game in a row. Korinek has struggled with foul trouble for the last two years, and Kent State is a much lesser offensive team when she is on the bench.
“I’ve done a lot of one-on-one time in the film room with coach Starkey,” Korinek said after Wednesday’s game, “studying defense and how to defend without fouling.”
To follow Saturday’s game
- Online video starts at 2 p.m. on ESPN3. (To watch, you’ll need to have a subscription to ESPN through cable or satellite TV.)
- Audio starts at 1:45 on Golden Flash iHeart radio and WHLO 640.
- Live statistics are available through the Buffalo website.
- In-game updates on Twitter at @KentStatewbb.
Preview from Kent State website, including links to statistics, schedule/results and roster.
Preview from Buffalo website, including links to statistics, roster and schedule/results.
MAC statistics, including standings. Page links to both full-season and conference stats.