Fight to the finish

Cody Erbacher

When it comes to a college hoops rivalry, Kent State vs. Akron is among the best … for two mid-major schools.

The schools are about 14 miles apart. The teams are historically among the top of the Mid-American Conference. The fans bleed their schools colors — blue and gold.

“If we were both the two worst teams in the league it would be a big game, no matter what,” senior guard Chris Singletary said. “But it helps the rivalry when both teams are doing great.”

It’s reached that time of the season where the MAC powerhouses are ready to face off for a regular season conference championship. But this season there’s a little extra flare heating up the rivalry.

Both teams enter with an identical 22-8, 12-3 MAC record, and the winner will receive an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament. Not only do the rivals have identical records, but the Flashes have also won 12 of their last 13 games, and the Zips have won nine of their last 11.

“There’s no question it’s the biggest game of the year,” Kent State coach Geno Ford said.

The Rhodes Arena, which seats 6,204 fans, has been sold out since Wednesday, according to the Akron athletic department.

The Akron fans will be more than willing to bring the noise, as did Kent State fans in the first matchup, and the Flashes know that.

“The crowd’s going to be into it,” Singletary said. “It’s going to be loud, but at the end of the day we’ve got to be a family and play together and play with emotion and fight through adversity.”

There is a plan to keep the crowd a minimal factor in the game. Kent State needs to get on the scoreboard quick and develop a strong presence in the paint early, as the players have ran their offense all season.

The combination of a post presence from sophomore forward Justin Greene, who recorded a double-double in the win over Akron earlier in the season, and the passing ability of Singletary will be a vital factor to open up shots for the guards.

“You’ve got to get off to a good start. You don’t want to fall behind early in the game,” Ford said. “We want to make it a little more of a grind physical around the basket toughness game.

“When we’re at our best we’re a team that scores a lot of points around the basket. Our whole offensive philosophy is to play insideout.”

Today’s game marks the fifth-straight season that Kent State and Akron have met in the final game with the outcome deciding either a divisional or overall league title for one or both teams.

The first matchup

In the matchup between the rivals at the beginning of the MAC season, Kent State recorded five players in double digits.

In the mix was Greene who recorded 23 points and 13 rebounds anchoring the 87-70 victory over the Zips.

Kent State held Akron’s 3-point shooting to a miserable 23.5 percent (4-for-17).

But the Zips are shooting 33.7 percent on the season from behind the arc. Akron’s offense is able to go on some hot streaks from three-point range, and Ford said the Flashes cannot let this happen in today’s game.

“They’re a really good shooting team,” Ford said. “We can’t allow them to get hot from three and get a comfortable lead.”

The postseason

The team that leaves Rhodes Arena with a win will earn the title of MAC Regular Season Champions. Also, the team will receive an automatic bid to the NIT.

Regardless of the outcome, Kent State has an opportunity for an at-large bid to the NIT because of its schedule strength.

“We play the regular season to get a postseason bid,” Ford said. “That’s our focus. We’re in a position this year with our RPI at 47 I’d like to think that we’re a lock for the NIT win or lose Friday.”

If the Flashes can win the MAC Tournament, which starts next week, they receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

But Ford said Kent State’s record mixed with its schedule difficulty should guarantee them a spot in a postseason tournament. Whether it is the NCAA, NIT, College Basketball Invitational or the Tournament.

Contact sports reporter Cody Erbacher at [email protected].