With eight games remaining in the 2001-02 Mid-American Conference men's basketball regular-season campaign, Kent State realistically couldn't ask to be sitting in a better position.
The Golden Flashes (16-5, 9-1 MAC) have pulled off a MAC rarity by reeling off seven consecutive league wins, giving them a full two-game cushion in the loss column over Ohio (12-6, 7-3), West Division leader Ball State (14-7, 7-3) and Bowling Green (16-4, 6-3) as they enter the proverbial regular-season stretch run.
Rookie coach Stan Heath's troops are actually ahead of the pace required to claim the school's first-ever regular-season conference crown, following three consecutive runnerup finishes. But they know that could all change drastically tonight, when a desperate Falcons squad invades the M.A.C. Center seeking to avenge a rare home loss to Kent State nine days ago and keep their own title hopes alive.
"I'm sure they look at this as a must-win game, and we look at it as a chance to put a stamp on where we are in the conference," said Heath. "We're looking forward to an exciting game, and I'm hoping our fans come out and pack the place and make it rock. They're going to see some of the best college basketball played in the entire country."
Both perennial MAC powers are anchored by upperclassmen who have their sights set on going out in style.
Bowling Green is led by 6-foot-2 senior guard Keith McLeod, a former Canton McKinley High School star who averages a MAC-high 23.6 points per game, along with 6-9 senior center Len Matela (15.2 points, 7.9 rebounds) and senior point guard Brandon Pardon (11.3 points, 6.5 assists).
Kent State features one of the top backcourt tandems in the country with seniors Trevor Huffman (15.3 points, 4.4 assists) and Andrew Mitchell (14.8 ppg) along with newcomer Antonio Gates, a 6-4 junior forward who leads the team in scoring (15.5 ppg) and rebounding (8.5 rpg).
The seniors from both squads have become well acquainted with one another over the course of their collegiate careers.
"They've all been playing since they were freshmen, so this game has naturally progressed into a rivalry for them," said Heath. "But it's a healthy rivalry. They all compete hard and respect one another."
Kent State has captured the last four battles with Bowling Green, including a 70-67 triumph earlier this season an Anderson Arena. In order to stay in control of the MAC race the Flashes know they can't let the Falcons return the favor at the M.A.C. Center, where they're 8-0 this season and 44-4 over the past four years.
Midseason home losses have ultimately cost the Flashes a piece of the conference title in each of the past three seasons.
"We're taking it one game at a time, and the most important thing we're trying to do is protect our home," said Heath. "That's the message we're delivering as coaches, and our seniors have done a good job of filtering it throughout our team."
Phone: (330) 678-5460