Heath knows nothing comes easy in MAC

By Allen Moff Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Stan Heath may be a rookie head coach, but he's already figured out Mid-American Conference men's basketball. Make that, Kent State's first-year mentor has figured out that there's no figuring out MAC men's basketball. That's much more like it. Struggling Akron's overtime triumph over a previously red-hot Bowling Green squad (14-2) on Wednesday is simply the latest example of the MAC's unprecedented parity, which creates a thrilling wire-to-wire race for the regular-season title each and every season. "It's surprising, but it's not surprising," said Heath, referring to the Falcons' fall at Akron. "This league is always so tough that you can never count on a win over anyone, especially on the road. I'm sure Akron played a great game, but Bowling Green is still one of the best teams in this league. "Night in and night out, you just never know what's going to happen." Actually, a method of sorts has emerged from the MAC's madness. Over the past eight years, no team that's claimed the league's regular-season title has lost more than once at home. The past three champions _ Central Michigan, Bowling Green and Miami _ went unbeaten in their own gyms, and no squad that finished perfect at home and above .500 on the road has failed to at least grab a share of the conference crown during that stretch. The Flashes have a MAC-best 39-15 league mark over the past three campaigns, but have never won a single overall title. And the fact that they've never finished with an unblemished home record is certainly no coincidence. Heath was unaware of those facts, but he wasn't shocked to hear them. "I know that's the way things consistently work in the major conferences," said Heath, who served as an assistant at Michigan State before taking over at Kent State. "We won three straight Big Ten titles the last three years at Michigan State, and we won 44 straight games at home. You always have to protect your home court. But at the same time, you need to steal a few games on the road to make your record favorable." Kent State will attempt to pull off a major heist Saturday at high noon in Bowling Green, when the two East Division powers will collide before a packed house at always rowdy Anderson Arena. But this robbery could easily be botched. The Falcons (14-3, 4-2 MAC, 7-0 at home) will still be fuming after losing to the hapless Zips, and they'll also be facing a near must-win situation. After earning 12 victories in a row, Bowling Green has dropped two of its last three and can ill-afford a home loss to the East Division leading Flashes (13-5, 6-1 MAC). "They're playing at home, so they have the edge," said Heath. "It's a big game for us and we're certainly preparing hard for the challenge, but it's only one game and it's on the road. The pressure's on them to win at home." Kent State actually knocked off the Falcons three times last year, including a dramatic come-from-behind 70-64 triumph in Bowling Green. To keep that streak intact the Flashes will have to contain a high-octane Falcons' offense that features senior guard Keith McLeod (MAC-high 23.8 ppg), currently the leading candidate for MAC player of the year honors, and 6-foot-9 senior center Len Matela (15.4 points, 7.9 rebounds). "They have an inside-outside threat with Matela and McLeod, and that's what makes them so tough to defend," said Heath. "We're concerned about them, but our biggest concern is ourselves. If we play up to the level we're capable of playing, the rest will take care of itself." If Kent State can take care of Bowling Green, Heath's squad would improve its league road record to 3-1. Tack on their perfect 4-0 record at the M.A.C. Center, and the Flashes would be on pace to finish unbeaten at home and above .500 on the road. "We're certainly not putting all our eggs in one basket for this game," said Heath, "but a win would put us in a very good position." __ E-mail: amoff@recordpub.net Phone: (330) 678-5460

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