Seven months of preparation have led to this -- for two schools that are just miles apart.
For Kent State, a win will be the difference between another ho-hum NIT berth and an NCAA Tournament appearance. For Akron, it's basically all or nothing. Either this is one of the three most successful seasons in the program's Division I history, or it's the fourth year out of five when Akron couldn't complete the job.
This rivalry has been fueled by the subliminal knowledge from both schools that there is really only room for one popular midmajor team in this region. When Kent was hot last decade, Akron was barely mentioned. When the Zips finally went to an NCAA Tournament after 21 years without, the buzz surrounded the Roo.
To me, that is a great contributor to the passion behind this rivalry. Both teams want the spotlight, and sincerely need it to fill their arenas. It's only large enough for one school.
The Flashes are favored by 1.5 points. The teams have split this season's matchups. Akron won the first game because of a raucous crowd (and the absence of Carlton Guyton). Kent won the second game because of its own raucous crowd.
Tonight, the teams will meet on a neutral floor, and it really will be neutral. Both teams are likely to bring an equal amount of fans. Here are the keys to the game, in my opinion:
1) Zeke Marshall staying out of foul trouble, so he can defend Justin Greene. Marshall is the only guy in the MAC I have seen stop Greene on a consistent basis.
2) Keep Michael Porrini off of the offensive glass. The more I watch Porrini, the more I like him. He is an all-around player who doesn't have any one single attribute that "wow"s you, but does everything quite well and is a nonstop hustler. It's the extra possessions from a guard's offensive rebound that just cripple a team's spirit.
3) Get to the rim. Alex Abreu and Quincy Diggs have the ability to get Greene in foul trouble, or drive and dish to the perimeter. When that happens, the Zips are at their best.
The tipoff is at 6 p.m., but I'll be at The Q liveblogging by 5. If you have a smartphone, bookmark this site and follow along with statistics and behind-the-scenes insight while at the arena.