By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Rob Senderoff is certainly not jumping for joy about starting the 2012-13 campaign a mediocre 5-5.
But Kent State's second-year men's basketball boss isn't overly concerned either, especially when he looks around the Mid-American Conference and sees every team in the league playing in spurts and struggling to achieve consistency -- just like his Golden Flashes.
Preseason league favorites Ohio, which reached the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 last year, and Akron haven't lit the world on fire as many expected. In fact, the teams traditionally at the bottom of the MAC have been the most impressive so far, according to Senderoff.
"I think the so-called bottom of the league has elevated. It's not nearly as bad as it has been in year's past," said Senderoff. "There was always a big gap between the East and West (divisions), and now RPI-wise, the top-three teams are from the West."
Heading into Wednesday's action, Western Michigan had the MAC's top RPI ranking at No. 64, followed by Central Michigan at 65 and Eastern Michigan at 107. Next come four teams from the East Division: Miami (140), Akron (146), Ohio (157) and Kent State (165).
"There's much more parity at this stage than there has been in the last six to eight years," said Senderoff. "Central has won more games than anybody thought they would, Eastern has beaten Purdue and Western has beaten South Florida."
Meanwhile, the Zips (5-4), Bobcats (7-3) and Flashes (5-5) each have one victory over a team ranked in the top 85 of the RPI, and one loss to a foe ranked 205 or lower. Ohio fell to No. 205 Winthrop, which also gave Ohio State fits on Tuesday, at home in its last contest.
Kent State has the most impressive road win, a 74-60 triumph at No. 67 Nebraska, while the Zips knocked off No. 66 Middle Tennessee at home and Ohio took down No. 85 Richmond.
"Akron and OU were the preseason favorites and deserved to be. But at this stage, Akron and OU haven't beaten anybody that they weren't supposed to beat, and both have lost games that you would say you're surprised they lost," said Senderoff.
"They haven't had a marquee win yet. But those West teams have played well, which should make for more parity and an interesting conference season. It also makes it harder for the teams that are traditionally on top," Senderoff said.
"But at the same time, my thought process really is just on trying to win these next two games at home before Christmas. We have to find a way to win these next two games. And both will be hard in different ways."
The Flashes will play two home games in three days beginning with tonight's battle against winless St. Francis (Pa.), followed by Saturday's matchup with a formidable Arkansas State squad (6-3).
Kent State has been idle since a tough Dec. 9 loss at Xavier, and will attempt to snap a three-game losing streak tonight against the Red Flash (0-9).
"St. Francis obviously isn't as good on paper or record-wise as Arkansas State, but we've been off 11 days so that will be a challenge," said Senderoff. "Then Arkansas State is every bit as good as us, if not better. We beat them (in Arkansas) last year, so they're gonna want to play."
After emerging from a tough 10-game season-opening stretch that included seven games in November and road tests at powerful foes Xavier (7-2), Bucknell (10-1) and Nebraska (7-3), securing a pair of pre-Christmas victories would certainly make the holidays much sweeter for the Flashes.
"There's some things to build on," said Senderoff. "We just have to keep working to get better and stay positive."
The Flashes have spent much of the break trying to find ways to help standout senior guards Randal Holt and Chris Evans shake their collective shooting slumps. Holt (6-of-31, 19 percent) and Evans (12-of-46, 26 percent) are shooting a combined 23 percent (18-of-77) from the field during Kent State's three-game losing streak.
"We need to get better as a team scoring off assisted baskets, because your looks are just better that way," said Senderoff. "We're having those guys be conscious to drive and get their shots as opposed to every shot they're taking being off the bounce, or being something they create for themselves. At practice, it's been great, now we've gotta carry it into the game."
Junior-college transfer Melvin Tabb is coming off a 20-point, 14-rebound performance in just the second start of his career against Xavier. Now the junior forward needs to prove that effort was no fluke.
"The key for him now is to have some consistency," said Senderoff. "He needs to figure out how to play hard and not get in foul trouble, because now we're counting on him. He's big, he's strong, he's athletic. He's got some skill in the post."
ORTIZ ON SCHEDULE
Freshman forward Chris Ortiz, who broke a bone in his foot during Kent State's Nov. 28 win at Youngstown State, has been cleared to ride a stationary bike this week.
"He's been at every practice, lifting, shooting free throws," said Senderoff. "He'll get another X-ray this week, but so far he's on pace, on target."
Ortiz was expected to miss six weeks after undergoing surgery on Dec. 1. So if he stays on track, he could return for Kent State's Jan. 12 game at Ball State.