By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
While many teams across the country will begin postseason play with better overall records, few enter the pivotal month of March playing better basketball than Kent State.
The fourth-seeded Golden Flashes (19-12, 9-7 MAC) will tip-off tonight's Mid-American Conference Tournament third-round matchup with eighth-seeded Buffalo (14-19) having won eight of their last 10 contests to close the regular season. Six of those eight victories have come by seven points or more, while the two losses -- at MAC West Division champion Western Michigan (82-76) and at defending MAC tourney champion Ohio (78-75 in OT) -- weren't decided until the waning moments.
Of course, none of that will matter if the Flashes don't come to play tonight against a dangerous Bulls squad that outscored fifth seed Ball State 46-25 in the second half to win Wednesday's second-round matchup 76-61. The Cardinals entered the tourney having won five in a row and seven of their last eight games.
"We're playing well, but so was Ball State," said KSU second-year coach Rob Senderoff. "Buffalo's now playing well. They just beat a team that finished fifth in the league going away. I'm sure Buffalo's playing with a lot of confidence. We're gonna have to take the fight to them to have a chance to win."
Kent State's most impressive victory down the stretch, a 68-64 triumph that spoiled Senior Night at arch-rival Akron in last Friday's regular season finale, gave the Flashes a five-game winning streak and a rush of momentum they hope to continue riding into tonight's tourney opener -- and hopefully beyond.
"We're not nervous or ducking anybody in the MAC," said KSU senior guard Randal Holt. "We're ready to play whoever on any given night. We're gonna play Kent State basketball and do what we do, and find a way to come out with a victory."
The Flashes found a way to defeat the Bulls twice during the regular season, even though they had absolutely no answer for Buffalo star Javon McCrea. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound junior forward piled up an astounding 65 points, 25 rebounds and 12 blocked shots in the two contests.
"He's been great against us, and (against Ball State) their other post player (6-8 sophomore Will Regan) went for 35," said Senderoff.
"They're very good in the post and they've got a couple guys that can shoot. They have a system that's difficult to play against," Senderoff said.
Senderoff said the Flashes will do "nothing different" defensively against McCrea in game three.
"We have to do a good job pressuring the basketball and making it hard for him to get it," he said. "We've played quite a bit of zone against them in both games, and it's something we'll probably have to go to at some point again."
Kent State managed to defeat the Bulls 80-68 on the road in mid-January and 83-81 at the M.A.C. Center two weeks ago, when star senior forward Chris Evans kissed a five-foot baseline runner off the glass at the buzzer in overtime.
"We've had two great games with them. Both have been very, very close, and we've been fortunate to win," said Senderoff. "Both games could have gone either way."
The Flashes are one win away from reaching 20 victories for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons even though they returned just one starter and two of their top eight scorers from last year's 21-12 squad. Those two players, Holt and Evans, have risen to the occasion repeatedly both as players and leaders during the 2012-13 campaign.
Holt struggled with his shooting, especially around the basket, over some lengthy stretches this season while attempting to fully recover from June knee surgery. But the team's lone returning starter has been at his best right along with Kent State as a whole during the past 10 games, averaging 15.9 points and shooting 46.4 percent from 3-point range during that stretch.
Evans has been a model of consistency throughout the season. He reached double figure points in 28-of-30 games and ranked among the MAC's top four in points (4th, 16.6), rebounds (4th, 7.7) and steals (3rd, 2.0) during the regular season, earning First Team all-league honors one year after averaging just 9.5 points and 4.1 boards as Kent State's sixth man.
While Holt and Evans are the players foes fear most, the Flashes' late-season surge has been keyed by the vastly improved play of junior forward Darren Goodson and sophomore point guard Kris Brewer.
After reaching double figures just once in Kent State's first 17 games, Goodson is averaging 13.7 points over the last 13 contests. He's coming off his best game in a KSU uniform, a 19-point, eight-rebound effort that included a series of clutch second-half baskets against the Zips.
Goodson missed summer workouts after transferring from Pensacola State junior college in Florida, and needed some time to get acclimated to major college basketball.
"Now it's just my teammates having confidence in me, and me having confidence in myself," said Goodson. "Coach (Senderoff) sat me earlier in the season, and we had a talk over Christmas break, and he said he needed me to be the player in Kent that he got from Pensacola or I was going back there. I don't wanna go back."
Brewer, who played sparingly as a freshman a year ago, had his moments but struggled with consistency over the first 20 games this year. He entered the 10-game regular season stretch run shooting 34 percent from 3-point range with 46 assists compared to 56 turnovers, but now leads the MAC in 3-point shooting percentage (45.3) and has 88 assists to 86 turnovers.
"Absolutely," said Senderoff responded, when asked if the improved play of Goodson and Brewer has been a key to KSU's late-season success. "And Randal and Chris Evans playing a little better has also helped. As Randal's gotten healthier he's played better. Both of them as seniors just decided they were gonna do everything they can to try to win games."
Trying was an issue with certain players at certain times this season, but effort is no longer one of Senderoff's concerns heading into the postseason.
"This is a time that if your kids really want to play, which I think our kids do, and they have a positive mind set, which I know our kids do, then we'll play with a lot of energy and effort," said Senderoff. "If we don't play well in Cleveland then we're not gonna be advancing, but if we play well we'll advance."
The winner of tonight's game will face top-seeded Akron (24-6) in the semifinals Friday at 6:30.