Halfway through the MAC season, Flashes have shown they can win

Seedings25

Chart from the conference office.

Thoughts at the halfway point of the Mid-American Conference season:

So far, pretty good

The Flashes are 5-4 and tied for fifth in the league. It’s a record I would have been happy to take before the season started. The team got an unexpected win at 13-7 Toledo and an unexpected loss at 7-14 Ball State.

Otherwise the Flashes have won four home games — Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Akron and Western Michigan — that they needed to win in order to compete for the first division in the conference.

Three of their losses were to the best in the MAC — Ohio (17-2), Central Michigan (16-5) and Miami (16-4). Only one of their losses (Miami) was by more than seven points.

If the tournament started today, the Flashes would get the fifth seed because of tie-breaker victories over Toledo and NIU. They play those teams only once this season, so they’ll own the tie-breakers when official seedings come in March.

“We’ve done better than most people expected…better than we expected,” coach Todd Starkey said on KSU’s Hoop Scoop radio show Thursday.

Why is the team better?

The Flashes lost three starters to graduation, including Jordan Korinek, one of the best players in Kent State history. Yet they are a better team. At 12-8 overall, they’re one victory from their total for all last season.

Accomplishing that has been a combination of improved players, new talent and a system that fits them well.

Redshirt junior guard Megan Carter was the team’s second leading scorer last season, but she was very inconsistent (19 points one game, four the next). This year she’s scored at least 17 points in 17 of 20 games. Before the season, coach Starkey called her potentially an all-MAC player. I had doubts. Now I would be surprised if she were not all-conference — not first team, but definitely second or third.

Alexa Golden’s scoring average of 7.4 points a game is unspectacular, but the senior guard is having her best season. In conference games only, she leads the MAC in steals and is in the league’s top 20 in blocked shots, assists, rebounding and three-point percentage. And most important, she anchors the KSU defense, which is one of the league’s best.

Senior Merissa Barber-Smith missed the second half of last season with a medical issue, and the team missed her. She scores fewer than two points a game. But she’s 15th in the MAC in rebounding (6.0) in less than 20 minutes a game. At 6-4, she’s a rim protector, and on Wednesday was guarding three-point-shooting forwards on the perimeter.

Junior Ali Poole has moved into a quasi-forward spot in Kent State four-guard offense. She leads starters in field-goal percentage.

And there is the freshman class, which was billed as potentially the best in school history. It hasn’t disappointed.

Point guard Asiah Dingle is a strong candidate for MAC freshman of the year. She is fearless and fearsome in driving to the basket, is key to Kent’s transition offense, and has very quick hands on defense. She does need to pass more, foul less and develop a three-point shot. But we’ll be talking about her 20 years from now.

Lindsey Thall looks to be the best freshman post player in the conference. Her statistics actually are a little better than Korinek’s as a freshman. Thall leads the MAC in blocked shots and is the team’s best three-point shooter. We’ve seen flashes of an inside game start to develop.

Mariah Modkins and Hannah Young are the team’s first guards off the bench. Modkins harasses opposing guards as well as anyone I’ve seen. Young has given the team good moments but hasn’t quite found herself as a college player, considering she was a four-time all-stater in Virginia.

Kent State freshmen have scored 45 percent of the team’s points this season. That’s 149 points more than any other group of freshmen in the conference, according to figures from Jay Fiorello, KSU’s assistant sports communication director for women’s basketball..

The freshmen have made the team faster and more athletic. That has allowed Starkey to play his preferred up-tempo offense and pressure defense. When I first saw practice last fall, the coach joked about the team having to win games 100-98. Instead the defense has been the team’s strength.

The Flashes are near the best in the league in turnover margin; they haven’t even had a positive margin since 2011-12. KSU is allowing six fewer points a game than they were last year and leads the conference in defensive field-goal percentage

So what’s in store for the rest of the year?

The second half of the conference schedule looks a little easier than the first. Key is going to be whether Kent State can beat teams with a worse record on the road. That’s something the Flashes were able to do in the non-conference, though most of the MAC is better than the teams Kent beat before Christmas.

The Flashes haven’t yet played Bowling Green, which hasn’t won a league game. That’s two winnable games.

They play at Eastern Michigan, at Akron and at Western Michigan. They’re all teams behind KSU in the standings and all teams the Flashes have beaten at home.

They play Ohio and Miami at home. They came within five points of 19-2 Ohio in Athens but lost by their widest margin of the year (79-63) at Miami. If they could steal one of those games, I’d be very happy.

And there’s Buffalo, which is 7-2, tied for second in the MAC and 15-6 overall. The Bulls, Ohio, Miami and Central are within a half game of each other for first place in the league. All four are ranked in the CollegeInsider Mid-Major Top 25. 

The Flashes play at Buffalo Saturday and at home in the last game of the season. Things won’t be easy.

Add it up, and you get this:

Say the Flashes win four of five against BG, Eastern, Akron and Western. That would give them a minimum 9-9 MAC record. Win nfive of five, and/or a home win against Ohio, Miami or Buffalo, and that would take them to 10-8 or 11-7. Win two or three games against the top teams, and they’re 12-6 or 13-5 and in the fight for a first-round bye at the tournament. It’s not likely. It’s not impossible. It’s exactly what they did two years ago.

Where do the Flashes need to improve to finish the season strong? The answer is pretty simple: Shoot better and more consistently.

KSU’s shooting percentage in MAC play is 37.5 — dead last and not even a close last. Next worst is Northern Illinois at 39.5 percent. Three-point shooting is 34 percent, fifth in the conference. But the Flashes don’t finish a lot of drives and miss close looks around the basket.

In the first half of the MAC season, the team shot as well as 44 percent against Akron and as bad as 24 percent at Ball State. Three-point percentage ranged from 54 to 14.

When Kent passes the ball, it’s a much better team. But in four MAC games, the Flashes have had eight or fewer assists. That’s not a recipe for winning basketball.

MAC standings.

MAC statistics (conference games only with link to all games).

Kent State statistics.

 

 

 

 

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