KSU’s leading scorers: Junior Megan Carter (15.6 points per game) and freshman Asiah Dingle (12.0 points per game). (File photos from KSU website)
The women’s basketball team enters Mid-American Conference play Saturday with a 7-4 record, tied for eighth best in that MAC. That’s also about where various national ranking systems place them.
Last year at this point, the Flashes were 7-5, then went 5-13 in conference play and finished 10th in the league.
Two years ago, KSU was 5-7, then surprised everyone and won the MAC East with a 13-5 record.
So which will it be this year? The Flashes have some very good young players and some some solid upperclassmen. They also are unproven against MAC-quality teams and have struggled to score.
I’ve watched this team for two months and still am not sure how good it is. I do know it’s completely different from the last two years. Those teams had very experienced line-ups. This year’s team starts two freshmen, and two more are among its top eight players. Those teams had a strong post player in all-MAC forward Jordan Korinek. There’s no one like her on current team.
But this year’s team is faster, more athletic and — though the statistics don’t show it — probably a better-shooting team.
But the MAC competition is going to be better than the non-conference schedule. The Flashes have beaten only one team with a winning record (Youngstown State, now 8-3, which they routed 62-34). No other school KSU has beaten has won more than three games. Every team in the MAC except Ball State has a winning record. Five teams are in the top 100 in the country in RPI.
I’d be happy with a .500 MAC record. Here are my keys to the Flashes doing than — or better.
1, 2, and 3: Score more points
In his preseason press conference, coach Todd Starkey said he wanted his team to average than 70 points a game. Without that, Starkey said “62 points probably will put us right squarely at 5-13 again in the league.” (That was last year’s scoring average and last year’s MAC record.)
In 10 non-conference games against Division I opponents, the Flashes averaged 63.4. They scored more than 70 only three times. 70 would be slightly above average for the league. Five teams average more than 73; seven average fewer than 67.
KSU’s shooting percentage against Division I competition schools is 36.3. (I don’t think it gives a fair picture if we count the 92-38 shellacking of Division II Clarion, when KSU made 52 percent of its shots.)
That is 10th in the MAC, a full 5 percentage points below the conference average. It’s 2 percentage points below last year’s team, which was ninth in the league in shooting. So how does KSU do better?
A. Shoot better — at least 40 percent.
How? Starkey says the team needs to (1) Score more in transition and (2) run the offense better.
“The goal is to get out and score before they can get their defense set up,” Starkey said. The Flashes have pushed the ball; there’s be very little walking it up the court. But they haven’t scored a lot of points doing it. Over the last five games, when KSU is 3-2, it has scored an average of about eight points a game on fast breaks, loosely defined as scoring without setting up the offense. Worst case was the 57-40 win over NJIT, when Kent had 10 steals and outrebounded the Highlanders 47-40 — and four fast-break points.
The Flashes have the speed to run — freshman point guard Asiah Dingle, for example, can look like a force of nature in the open court. But so far, it hasn’t happened consistently.
Starkey says the young team is still figuring out how college offense works.
“These players are still learning how to play together,” he said. “It’s a different thing when you have one or two freshmen that are playing major minutes, but we have four. That mix of things can throw some things off. They don’t know what to look for.”
Some players, he said, are “falling victim to the scouting report.”
“It’s new to many of them,” he said, “and they’re learning to understand that teams are going to know what their strengths are, and they’re going to try to take them away.”
The Clarion game was an example of what could be. Against Division II competition, the Flashes had 17 steals and scored 32 fast-break points. When they were in their half-court offense, Starkey called out play after play and the Flashes made 52 percent of their shots, a season high.
Whether that can translate to MAC play is something we’ll see starting Saturday.
B. Pass the ball
The Flashes are dead last in the conference in assists at 10.3 a game. Her Hoop Stats, an analytic wensite, says 47.7 percent of KSU’s scoring comes off of assists. That’s 313th of 351 Division I teams.
It’s certainly one reason the offense isn’t working well some of the time. The team is obviously working on that. KSU made it a point of emphasis between wins against Robert Morris and Saint Bonaventure. Assists went from eight to 15, and KSU scored its most points of the season against a Division I opponent.
One reason for the lack of assists is a different style of play. Much of last year’s offense was getting the ball to Korinek in the post. Leading scorers this year are guards Dingle and Megan Carter, who are excellent at creating their own shots off the dribble or through drives to the basket. But they’ve held the ball too much at times this season — “we’re been working on getting the ball out of their hands quickly,” Starkey said after one game. Both players can be good passers; they do lead the team in assists.
C. More players must score more
Carter (15.6 points per game) and Dingle (12.0) are the only players averaging in double figures. Freshman forward Lindsey Thall is almost there at 9.6.
It’s hard to reach 70 points at those levels. Starkey has said he’s comfortable with Carter at 15 or 16. So where’s the additional scoring going to come from?
Dingle certainly has the potential to score five more points a game. Thall could go up four or five. After that, it’s going to have to be starters Ali Poole (currently 8.3) and Alexa Golden (6.3) moving toward double digits. If the Flashes could get six or seven points a game out of rebounding machine Merissa Barber-Smith (she currently averages 2.6 points), it could change the way teams defend Kent State. Freshman Mariah Modkins (5.4) and Hannah Young (4.8) can score off the bench. Young scored 1,998 points in high school.
KSU’s team of two years ago didn’t win the MAC East just because Larissa Lurken averaged 23 points a game. She already was going into the conference season. The Flashes came together when Korinek, Carter and McKenna Stephens stepped up their games in the second half of the season.
4. Reduce turnovers at guard
For the first time in seven years, Kent State has a positive turnover margin. It’s plus-4.09, fourth in the MAC, compared with minus-3.78 last year. The Flashes are still committing turnovers — 16 a game, ninth in the conference and about one-and-a-half fewer than last season. But they’re forcing more — up about six a game from last year.
But Carter and Golden lead the Flashes in turnovers. Their combined assist-to-turnover ratio is 0.77. The top ball handlers in the league have an average of better than 2.0. Five teams in the MAC has assist-to-turnover ratios over more than 1.05.
As we said before, the offense runs through Carter and Dingle. So they have the ball more and therefore more opportunities to turn it over. They’re both aggressive, and when a player is too aggressive, she can force plays that aren’t there.
The two guards are the heart of the team. The Flashes need their scoring; they also need their not costing the team so many possessions.
5. Keep playing good defense
If the offense hasn’t produced the points we hoped for, the defense has exceeded expectations.
KSU leads the conference in field goal defense. Opponents have made just 34.9 percent of their shots. Last season the percentage was 41.4. The Flashes are allowing 57.9 points a game, fourth best in the MAC.
“This is a more athletic group, especially on the perimeter,” Starkey said.
“This year we’ve had people that have bought into defense,” said Golden, the team’s best defender.
Dingle and Modkins have extremely quick hands. Modkins, who is just 5 feet tall, can harass an opponent’s point guard like no Kent player I’ve seen in 15 years. And having the 6-4 Barber-Smith in the middle can change an opponent’s offense. She leads the MAC in blocked shots despite just playing 16 minutes a game.
The bottom line
So how many games can the Flashes win in the MAC?
My prediction is seven to 11, which is a pretty big range in an 18-game season. Here’s how I get there.
If the season isn’t a complete disaster, the /flashes have to beat Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Akron and Bowling Green in Kent. All rank below the Flashes in RPI. That’s four wins.
I see six games they have a solid chance to win: Those four teams away, Northern Illinois at home, and Ball State away. Say they win four of those. That’s a total of eight.
I could see KSU upsetting Miami here or away and maybe winning at Toledo.
It would be a significant upset if Kent State beat Ohio (11-0), Central Michigan (9-3) or Buffalo (8-3). All are potential NCAA tournament teams. Kent isn’t there yet.
So that’s eight wins. Win four of the “decent chance” games or beat Miami or Toledo. Or pull a big upset. That would be .500 or better. One more win is a .500 MAC season.
We’ll get a good idea very soon. The Flashes play Eastern Michigan Saturday and Northern Illinois Wednesday. Both games are in Kent.
And, by the way:
Could the Flashes contend for a MAC title? I’d be surprised. But who knows? KSU surprised all of us two years ago.