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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Heading into the 2012-13 season, there was a fear that the Kent State-Akron men's basketball rivalry may lose some of its luster because of a lack of true competitiveness.
While the Zips were returning four starters and nine lettermen from a squad that won 22 games, captured the Mid-American Conference's regular-season championship and lost a heartbreaker to Northwestern in the first round of the NIT, the Golden Flashes were looking to replace six of their top eight scorers from last year's 21-win team.
For the first time in years, the rivalry appeared to be incredibly one-sided on paper.
But while Akron has been as good as advertised thus far, Kent State has managed to overachieve, winning six of its past seven games despite returning just one starter, who had knee surgery in the off-season.
The Flashes' ability to remain competitive during a transition season has set the stage for yet another classic confrontation between the two backyard rivals this afternoon at the M.A.C. Center.
The Zips (12-4, 3-0 MAC) will still be a solid favorite after reeling off eight consecutive wins, all but two by 15 points or more. But Kent State (11-6, 2-1) has shown tremendous fight after laying an egg in its MAC opening loss to Toledo at home, bouncing back to capture a pair of tough conference road wins at Ball State and Buffalo.
"I don't think people truly understand we graduated six of our top eight scorers, and have only 34 percent of our minutes (played) returning," said second-year KSU coach Rob Senderoff. "Regardless of where we go from here, our kids have shown a lot of toughness."
That toughness has been oozing from senior guards Chris Evans and Randal Holt, who have taken it upon themselves to keep the Kent State program among the MAC's elite.
Evans in particular has been sensational all season long. After averaging 9.5 points and 4.1 rebounds as the Flashes' sixth man a year ago, the 6-foot-8 leaper known nationwide for his dunking prowess has nearly doubled those numbers in 2012-13. He ranks among the top three in the MAC in scoring (2nd, 17.1 ppg), rebounds (3rd, 7.7 rpg) and steals (3rd, 1.9 spg), and is shooting nearly 50 percent from the field.
Holt (14.2 ppg), the team's lone returning starter, has emerged from a lengthy shooting slump. After shooting 24.5 percent from the field during an eight-game stretch, he's made 13-of-24 field goals and scored 43 points in the past two contests.
Holt made all five of his 3-pointers and tied a career-high with 27 points in the Flashes' win at Buffalo on Wednesday.
"Chris Evans was our second-leading minutes guy returning, and he wasn't on anybody's preseason All-Conference team or on anybody's radar at all. Nobody knew he was going to do this," said Senderoff. "Randal is coming off a major knee injury, and didn't play the entire preseason. Our seniors are doing what seniors are supposed to do. Those two deserve a lot of credit in my opinion."
While he was dishing out credit, Senderoff tossed plenty the Zips' way.
"(Head coach Keith Dambrot) has been there nine years, and at this point they've developed the depth that everybody wants to have in their program," said Senderoff. "For a while they were trying to catch Kent, and they've caught Kent and beyond because they're so deep. I think their depth and their size is what separates them from a lot of the schools in our conference."
That size centers around 7-foot senior Zeke Marshall, who leads Akron in scoring (12.3 ppg) thanks to 67-percent shooting from the field and leads the MAC in blocked shots at 3.4 per game. That depth is apparent when you glance at their stats and see the Zips have nine players averaging over five points per game and 11 players averaging over 10 minutes per contest.
"Their 10th guy could start at a lot of different places," said Senderoff.
A much deeper and more experienced Flashes team fell three times to Akron last year, including a 78-74 setback in the MAC Tournament semifinals. So how can this year's inexperienced Kent State squad give itself a chance against an even better group of Zips?
"The three things we need to do well is take care of the basketball, rebound the basketball, and make sure we get back in transition and make them have to play against our halfcourt (defense)," said Senderoff. "If we can do those three things we'll have a chance."
The Flashes will also need a relentless effort on both ends of the floor by every player that steps on the court to have a shot at an upset.
"We've gotta compete, we've gotta play for each other, and we've gotta put winning in front of everything else," said Senderoff. "My biggest focus is on us competing really, really hard and just playing to win. If we do that, we'll see what happens at the end."