After two wins on the road, Kent State plays at a nearby neutral site Friday.
But this one will be much, much harder.
The Flashes take on Florida Gulf Coast at 5 p.m. Friday at the University of Akron’s James A. Rhodes Arena. It’s the first game in the Akron Classic, in which Kent and Akron swap opponents over two days. Akron (0-1) plays Southeastern Louisiana (0-2) after Friday’s KSU-Florida Gulf Coast game. KSU plays Southeastern Louisiana at noon Saturday, followed by Akron vs. FGCU.
Florida Gulf Coast is a really good team. The Eagles are ranked fourth in this week’s Mid-Major Poll. They return four starters from a team that went 26-9 last season. They have won at least 25 games every season since 2010-11, won six of the last seven Atlantic Sun Conference championships, and made 10 straight post-season tournaments (four NCAA, six WNIT).
FGCU beat Illinois by 85-61 in its opener. It beat Florida International University 88-52 Wednesday, outscoring the team 58-19 in the second half
The Eagles will be gunning for Kent State, which beat them 77-64 last year in the Gulf Coast Showcase, a Thanksgiving tournament played near the FGCU campus. It was the biggest non-conference win of Kent State’s 19-13 season.
“We’re going to have to play much better than we have in the first two games to have an opportunity to be in the game,” KSU coach Todd Starkey said on Kent State’s FlashTalk radio/Facebook Live broadcast Thursday. “This is a team that, if they continue to develop, could make the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament in March.
“They’re a forminable offensive team. If we don’t defend the three-point line, they could beat us by 30.”
FGCU has made 40 percent of its three-point shots this season, and the Eagles shoot a lot of them. They were 17 of 42 against Florida International and 13 of 32 against Illinois. Last season they averaged 30 three-point shots a game and shot 30 percent.
“They’re going to spread you out,” Starkey said. “They’re going to shoot threes in transition, drive the basket and kick for threes. They’ll make it difficult to guard all over the court.”
Against Kent State last year they shot 43 three-pointers, a number Starkey marveled about after the game. But the Eagles made only 12 (28 percent) and only two in the first half.
“They had a cold shooting night,” Starkey said. “We caught them after they played two difficult opponents. They didn’t play their best, and we played well.
“We’re not sneaking up on them this year. They’re the ones that are coming in, saying, ‘Hey, they beat us last year.’ They’re going to be so ready to play us.”
Kent State has defended the three-point shot well so far this season, and Youngstown State, at least, is a team that builds its offense around the distance shot. (Northern Kentucky has a second-year coach and so many new players that it’s hard to draw any conclusion about it.)
The Flashes held those teams to 12 of 51 three-point shots (24 percent) in beating NKU 59-54 and Youngstown State 55-44. But both those teams are 0-2 so far this season.
Kent State so far has won on defense.
“That’s the way it’s going to be for a while,” Starkey said after the YSU game.
The Flashes are still trying to figure out their offense without Larissa Lurken, who as a senior averaged a school-record 23.6 points a game last season.
“A lot of the success other players had last season was because Larissa drew a lot of attention,” Starkey said Thursday. “Now they’re learning how to play without that diversion.”
There have been signs of the Flashes’ finding their way. Junior guard Alexa Golden had a career-high 17 points against Youngstown State and drove to the basket in ways that at times reminded you of Lurken. Forward McKenna Stephens has made eight of her 13 shots and three of six three-pointers in two games. Sophomore guard Ali Poole has played aggressive offense and actually has taken more shots than any other Kent State player.
And senior forward Jordan Korinek scored 29 points when Northern Kentucky tried to guard her straight up and showed a willingness to act as a decoy when Youngstown State built its game plan around stopping her. She scored 10 at YSU.
To follow the game
The game starts at 5 p.m. If you plan to go, here are directions from the Akron website.
There is no television coverage.
Audio starts at about 4:45 p.m. on Golden Flash Radio.
Live statistics will be available through the Akron website.
Preview from the KSU website, including links to its roster, statistics, schedule/results and much more.
Preview from the Florida Gulf Coast website, including links.
Preview of the two-day tournament from the Akron website.
Florida Gulf Coast coach Karl Smesko is a 1993 Kent State graduate. Wikipedia says he walked on to the KSU men’s team as a senior but left the team to take care of a family member. He graduated summa cum laude in communications. His first job was at Walsh Universty the year after he graduated from Kent State. He has a 467-109 career record as a coach and has been Atlantic Sun coach of the year seven times. He is one of four active Division I coaches who have won more than 80 percent of their games. The others: Baylor’s Kim Mulkey, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and Connecticut’s Gino Auriemma.
After this weekend’s games, the Flashes will go back to class for two days, then fly to Las Vegas for the Play4Kay Showcase. They’ll play Stanford, a Final Four team a year ago, at 8:30 p.m. (Kent time) on Thanksgiving, then play Gonzaga or Belmont Friday and DePaul, Ohio State, Memphis or Florida Gulf Coast (again) on Sunday. Stanford and Ohio State are in the current top 25 rankings. Belmont, Gonzaga and Florida Gulf Coast are in the top 10 of the mid-major poll. Every team except Memphis won at least 19 games last season; six were conference champions, counting Kent State’s MAC East title. Former KSU head coach Danny O’Banion is associate head coach at Memphis.
The two tournaments mean Kent State will play five games in eight days. “Our team would rather play than practice anyway,” Starkey said with a laugh Thursday. The stretch certainly will test the Flashes’ depth. That’s especially true at point guard, where senior Naddiyah Cross has played 71 of 80 minutes so far this season. She had only one turnover in 39 minutes against Youngstown State.