Kent State’s basketball season comes down to one final — and telling — stretch of four Mid-American Conference games, beginning tonight at home against Buffalo.
Cross divisional play is out of the way. The annual BracketBusters game is in the books. How the Golden Flashes (15-12, 5-7) fare against Buffalo (11-16, 6-6) and at Miami on Saturday followed by hosting Bowling Green and playing at the University of Akron next week will have a huge impact on the success of the 2013 season.
If — and it’s a big if — Kent State can win out, it could claim as high as a No. 4 seed in the March 11-16 conference tournament that ends at Quicken Loans Arena. If not, the Flashes could finish as low as a No. 10 seed. The difference between even the Nos. 4 and 6 seeds is worth noting.
Teams at the No. 6 seed and below have to play in early games at home sites to advance to play in Cleveland. The No. 5 seed receives a break with a bye to the second round. The Nos. 3 and 4 seeds come with more advantageous double-byes into the quarterfinals.
Right now, Buffalo is in third place in the MAC East. KSU and Bowling Green are tied for fourth.
“Like us, Buffalo holds its own destiny,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said. “If they win out, they could be a Nos. 3 or 4 seed. If we win out, we’re gonna be a four seed, as would Bowling Green if they won out.
“But the difference between a four and a six [seed] is huge – you only have to win three games [as a No. 4], but you’d have to win five games [as a No. 6] to go to the NCAA Tournament. So I wanted our guys to understand we still have a lot to play for to put ourselves in a position to play as few games as possible.”
Thus, winning as many of the final four games as possible is crucial to a Flashes team that hopes to play the role of spoiler that Ohio University has played so well in the MAC the past few seasons.
Senderoff and his staff narrow each pregame talk to three particular areas to focus the players. Facing Buffalo for the second time this season, the points are: rebounding; playing hard without fouling to keep the Bulls off the free-throw line; and winning the turnover battle.
To a certain degree, those keys are crucial in every game, but more so against a Bulls team that features one of the MAC’s best players, 6-foot-7 junior forward Javon McCrea.
“In our last game against them [an 80-68 KSU victory at Buffalo on Jan. 16] they went to the free-throw line a ton against us,” Senderoff said. “More importantly, they were in the bonus in both halves very early. We need to do a better job of making sure that we’re not giving them points in the bonus early.”
McCrea has owned the Flashes in the three seasons since he was the league’s Freshman of the Year, averaging 20.2 points in six career games against Kent State. That includes posting a career-high 33 points in the last meeting — a dominating performance that included going 15-for-15 at the free-throw line. McCrea is the Bulls’ top scorer (17.0) and rebounder (7.9)
“Javon McCrea is arguably the best post player in the league,” Senderoff said. “We obviously aren’t going to stop him. He’s a great player, so nobody stops him. But we want to try to force him to shoot a low percentage, make him take tough shots and work for everything.”
The Bulls were a one-man wrecking crew in the first meeting, but since then they’ve gotten more production out of senior guard Tony Watson. The result has been three consecutive league victories. In a loss in a BracketBuster game Saturday against Manhattan, Watson led the Bulls with 24 points, including seven 3-pointers.
“Right now, what’s most important is for us to play our best basketball down the stretch,” Senderoff said.
“We want to be playing well going into the conference tournament, and we’re headed that way. We’ve played better over the last two weeks. We’re 4-2 in February with the two losses being last-second losses to two very good teams [at Western Michigan and Ohio]. We just need to continue to plug away.”