By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
With parity in Mid-American Conference men's basketball at an all-time high, the door is cracked for a Cinderella team to engineer an improbable march to the 2014 MAC Tournament title.
Seeds five and higher -- such as No. 9 seed Kent State (16-15, 7-11 MAC) -- must win five games in six days to earn the tourney crown and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, beginning with tonight's first-round matchup. The Golden Flashes will battle No. 8 seed Miami (12-17, 8-10) at 7 p.m. in Oxford.
The odds are certainly stacked against all of the squads playing tonight, since No. 3 seed Buffalo (19-9, 13-5) and No. 4 seed Akron (20-11, 12-6) only need three victories to win the tournament while No. 2 seed Toledo (26-5, 14-4) and top-seeded Western Michigan (21-9, 14-4) are just two wins from claiming a bid to the "Big Dance." But every team has shown vulnerability over the course of a highly competitive 2014 conference season.
Some have just been a little more vulnerable than others.
The Flashes have struggled with consistency issues, both individually and as a team, throughout the conference campaign that make a task like winning five games in a week seem highly improbable.
They've relied heavily on 3-point shooting due to a lack of scoring punch in the post, but have made just 8-of-39 3s in their last two games -- losses to the RedHawks (73-61 at home) and Akron (58-54 on the road).
The setback at Akron was actually encouraging, since Kent State took its backyard rival to the wire despite converting just 3-of-19 3-point attempts. If the Flashes are going to make a run in the MAC tourney they'll need to find a way to grind out a victory at some point when they're not shooting well, as they nearly did against the Zips.
But a run can't start without a win tonight against Miami, which embarrassed Kent State on its home floor just six days ago by posting a 73-61 victory on Senior Night at the M.A.C. Center. The Flashes gave the RedHawks a similar beating at Millett Hall on Feb. 19, earning a 75-63 triumph.
"We lost to them on Tuesday and we didn't play very well in any facet.," said KSU coach Rob Senderoff. "At the same time it's not as if we haven't beaten them, where we might be lacking confidence or wondering if we can beat them, since we beat them by 12 at their place and were up 20. We know what we need to do to win, and now we've gotta go out and execute."
The Flashes will need to find an answer for Miami's Will Felder, who leads the team in scoring (14.6 ppg) and rebounding (6.9 rpg). The 6-foot-7 senior forward has produced 49 points and 12 rebounds in two games this season against Kent State.
"We've gotta limit his touches around the basket, and we've gotta keep him off the glass. That's where he scores," said Senderoff. "He's killed us with offensive rebounds in particular."
Miami's press, led by 6-foot senior guard Quentin Rollins (MAC-high 2.4 steals per game), also gave the Flashes fits early in last week's game. Kent State committed 12 turnovers that led to 19 points in the first half, when Miami built a 45-25 lead.
"We've gotta handle pressure," said Senderoff. "We've gotta slow them down in transition, and we've gotta do a good job of keeping Felder off the glass."
The Flashes are led by junior guard Kris Brewer (11.7 points per game), who followed one of the best performances of his career at Miami (career high-tying 28 points, 7-of-7 3s) with one of his worst ever in the rematch (2 points, 1-of-6 field goals).
Junior guard Derek Jackson is second in scoring (11 ppg), followed by junior sharp-shooter Devareaux Manley (9.7 ppg, 39 percent 3-pointers). Senior forward Mark Henniger is KSU's leading rebounder (5.1 rpg).
The winner in Oxford will take on the survivor of tonight's matchup between No. 12 seed Ball State (5-24, 2-16) and No. 5 seed Ohio (21-10, 11-7) Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena. The winner of that game advances to meet No. 4 seed Akron in the third round Thursday at 6:30 in Cleveland.
A potential path to the semifinals is in place, since Kent State earned wins over the RedHawks, Bobcats and Zips during the regular season.
"I just showed (the players) the first three games -- Miami, Ohio if they beat Ball State, and Akron. All three of those are teams we split with during the regular season," said Senderoff. "They understand that when we win (tonight) we've gotta play Wednesday against the winner of Ohio and Ball State. If we can get to Cleveland who knows what can happen, but you've gotta win the first one or the other stuff can't happen."
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