Limiting offensive production of Keene, Rayson key for Flashes in first round game

Central Michigan junior guard Marcus Keene drives the lane against Kent State junior guard Kevin Zabo at the M.A.C Center on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017. Kent State lost 105-98 in overtime.

Nick Buzzelli

Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff knows it isn’t easy to advance past the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament. Last year, his team suffered an early exit in the form of a 70-69 home loss to Bowling Green State University. In 2014, Kent State failed to secure a berth in the league’s quarterfinals, falling at Miami University by seven.

It’s only fitting that the head coach expects Monday’s matchup against Central Michigan University and its dynamic backcourt of Marcus Keene — the nation’s leading scorer — and Braylon Rayson to be a “tough” game.

“They got two tremendous, tremendous scorers and they beat us here in overtime already,” Senderoff said following Kent State’s final regular season loss to Akron on March 3. “I know there’s a lot of people disappointed that we lost tonight (Friday against Akron) … but it would be great if we could have a good crowd here Monday because it would make a difference in helping us in this game.”

The first time these two teams met, Keene and Rayson proved difficult for the Flashes to guard, combining for 67 of Central Michigan’s 105 points. They’re both natural scorers who seem as relaxed fighting for defensive rebounds in the paint as they are knocking down clutch three pointers from the wing.

At times, Kent State’s defense was able to effectively contain the pair of 5-foot-9-inch guards by double teaming them down low, limiting their midrange game and forcing turnovers — most of which occurred on traveling calls.

But then again, the two took over when they needed to the most.

Rayson logged 44 of the game’s 45 minutes, scoring 26 points on 8-18 shooting and dishing out four assists.

And Keene, who sat at 30 points at the end of regulation — his season average — went 4-4 from the floor in overtime, recorded his team’s first eight points of the final frame and finished with his second double-double (41 points, 10 rebounds) of the season on a 13-26 performance from the field.

“Yeah, he’s a good player,” said Jimmy Hall, who’s averaging 18.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game this season, after the first meeting on Jan. 28. “He can shoot the ball. He can score.”

Despite their strong backcourt play, the Chippewas have struggled to find consistency. At one point in January, they won three straight conference games and averaged 96 points of offense during that stretch.

But they finished the regular season at the bottom of the MAC’s West Division standings with a 6-12 record in conference play and enter the postseason contest at the M.A.C. Center on a seven-game losing skid.

However, Senderoff knows that in a one-bid league like the MAC — where any team, regardless of record, can beat its opponent — nothing is guaranteed.

“For a mid-major league — Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday — that determines if you go to the NCAA Tournament or not. I know we’ll compete, so that’s not going to be a problem. We haven’t not competed in a long time,” he said. “But it would be great to have some folks here cheering us on.” 

Nick Buzzelli is a sports reporter, contact him at [email protected].