KENT: Just one game stands between a surprising 9-1 record and a 17-day break for the Kent State basketball team.
When the Golden Flashes (8-1) host Bucknell (3-4) tonight at 7 p.m. at the M.A.C. Center, a six-game winning streak is on the line against a team that defeated KSU soundly last season in the teams’ first-ever meeting.
Last year at Bucknell’s Sojka Pavilion, the Bison cruised to a 76-60 win over the Flashes en route to a school-record 28 wins.
“It was our worst loss of the season,” KSU coach Rob Senderoff said. “It was my first time there, and they just have a great atmosphere there. It’s one of those towns where they really, really like basketball.”
In last year’s game, KSU had no answer for senior center Mike Muscala, who scored a game-high 27 points. Standing at 6-foot-11, Muscala was later selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the NBA Draft. But the Hawks have an already crowded frontcourt and Muscala signed with a pro team in Spain in August in order to continue developing his game while the Hawks maintain his rights.
Bison freshman guard Ryan Frazier also chipped in a career-high 13 points off the bench and junior guard Cameron Ayers led a strong defensive attack in Bucknell’s win last season.
The Bison led 32-31 at halftime but outscored the Flashes 44-29 in the second half. Sophomore guard Dev Manley led KSU with 15 points off the bench.
Now a senior, the 6-foot-5, 203-pound Ayers is the focus of the Bison offense, averaging a team-high 15.0 points per game. Ayers is the son of Randy Ayers, former Ohio State and Philadelphia 76ers coach and current assistant coach with the New Orleans Pelicans.
“Similar to the way we play, they’ll change their system a little bit each year based on personnel,” Senderoff said. “Last year they had the big kid they could throw it in to consistently. This year, they run some Princeton stuff [through Ayers] offensively and they still do a lot of stuff with ball screens. We’ll have to do a good job offensively because they’ll try to control tempo.”
Bucknell is one of just 12 NCAA teams to have won 25 or more games in each of the past three seasons. But the Bison are off to a slow start this year while adjusting to the loss of three starters from last year’s record-setting team.
Bucknell has struggled to find its identity early this season. Last year, coach Dave Paulsen only used two different starting lineups. This season, he’s already tried three different starting fives.
“Dave Paulsen is a phenomenal coach, probably one of the best people don’t know about,” Senderoff said. “[Bucknell] plays in the Patriot League and is a really good program. If they don’t win the league, they’ve been one, two or three year after year since he’s been there. They have a great system.”
Three of their four losses this season have come to teams in the RPI Top 100 — St. Mary’s (28), Princeton (77) and Stanford (91). Kent State is ranked 74th.
Despite KSU’s hot start, Senderoff knows his somewhat inconsistent team needs to maintain the same level of energy in both halves in order to continue its winning ways against Bucknell.
“Our margin of error is as small as it’s ever been because there’s just not a big difference between us being good, which we are right now, and us losing games consistently,” he said. “So, we have to play with an edge for us to be any good.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.