Flashes huddle at the end of practice on Wednesday. They play Georgia Southern Thursday and Troy Friday, both at 3 p.m. Kent time (noon in Las Vegas, where the tournament is being played).
A player for Georgia Southern’s women’s basketball team — Kent State’s tournament opponent in Las Vegas Thursday — sniffed as she walked into the arena at the South Point Hotel inn Las Vegas.
“It smells like horse,” she said.
Indeed. The arena is used most for the hotel’s resident rodeo. Workers shoveled out tons of dirt earlier this week to make way for the six teams that will compete here Thursday and Friday.
Kent State plays Georgia Southern at 3 p.m. Kent time (noon in Nevada) Thursday in the first game of the Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic.
The court on the floor was a little dusty from the removed dirt; KSU coach Todd Starkey stopped practice Wednesday for a moment so that his players could wipe their feet on a specially designed board. Arena seats are set well back from the court, which will make for a quieter game — more so because all of the teams are a long way from home.
Still, it’s pre-Christmas in Las Vegas for players and fans.
It will be the Flashes’ first game in 11 days. They broke for exams after their 77-64 loss at Purdue Dec. 9 and flew to Las Vegas Monday. Tuesday they practiced at the high school where a friend of KSU coach Todd Starkey is based. They also toured the neighboring Hoover Dam.
Wednesday’s 90-minute practice saw the team running plays and defenses against a simulated Georgia Southern schemes and getting used to the new rims.
The Flashes are 5-3, with all three losses coming to Big Ten teams. Georgia Southern is 2-6 and coming off a 69-66 loss to the SEC’s Mississippi in a game decided in the last minute on Monday.
“I think we’re one of the better teams here,” Starkey said after practice. “It’s a good field. We’re going to have to play our best basketball.”
Georgia Southern’s strength is rebounding; the Eagles outrebounded Ole Miss 44-42. But the team also was picked 11th in the 12-team Sun Belt Conference and ranks in the bottom 50 in the country in field-goal percentage, field-goal defense and assists per game. Its leading scorer is guard Tatum Barber at 12.3 points per game, Guard Alexis Brown averages 108 and was a second-team all-Sun Belt selection last season.
Starkey said the problems with a long layoff are more mental than physical.
“You can get a little bit complacent, a little bit out of game rhythm,” he said “So we’ve got to make sure that we are sharp. That’s our job as coaches.”
Kent State has won games decided in the last minute against Duquesne, Youngstown State and Robert Morris and beat Purdue Fort Wayne by eight points and St. Bonaventure by 23. It lost to Big Ten teams Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue.
Its game against Purdue before finals was the team’s best of the season. Save for a 12-2 run at the end of the second quarter, the Flashes played the Boilermakers evenly for most of the game despite both of KSU’s post players struggling with foul trouble.
All five KSU starters average in double figures, led freshman forward Nila Blackford at 14.6 points per game and sophomore forward Lindsay Thall (14.2). Blackford also leads the team in rebounding at 8.3 per game.
The Flashes have been scoring about seven more points a game than they did last season, when they went 20-13. But they’ve struggled on defense, where opponents have made 47% of their shots. The defense did play its best in the most recent games against Purdue and St. Bonaventure.
Friday’s opponent: the Sun Belt’s Troy
KSU plays Troy, which was picked second in the Sun Belt, at 3 p.m. Kent time Friday.
Troy is 7-2 and is one of the nation’s strongest rebounding teams, leading Division I in rebounds and offensive rebounds per game. The Trojans push the ball hard, ranking second in the country at possessions per 40 minutes (84.6). By comparison, Kent State averages 72.6 possession a game.
The tale of the RPI
Kent State’s RPI is 61 of 351 Division I teams. Georgia Southern is 291 and Troy 85. RPI is based 25% on a team’s record, 25% on its opponents’ record and 50% on its opponents’ opponents’ records. Road wins and home losses are weighted more heavily. To some extent, the RPI is used in postseason tournament selection and seeding.
To follow the game
The game starts at 3 p.m. Kent time (noon in Nevada).
Video is live streamed on Vimeo through the hotel.
Audio starts at about 2:45 Kent time on Golden Flash IHeart Radio. David Wilson is the announcer.
Live statistics are available during the game through the tournament.