The stakes for a men’s basketball game between the University of Akron and Kent State are always high, even when they aren’t occupying the top of the Mid-American Conference’s East Division.
The Zips (13-9, 5-4 in MAC) and Golden Flashes (17-5, 6-3 in MAC) are still duking it out for position as the former sits in fourth place in the division and the latter resides just above them in third.
In other words, it's game on at 9 p.m. Friday in the Crystal Clinic Wagon Wheel Challenge.
Despite the teams' current status, the MAC Tournament is still weeks away and games remain for each team to prove their mettle. On Friday night, the intensity of the UA-KSU rivalry will be on full display. How emotionally draining can it be? An all-time record of 76-74 in favor of KSU is indicative of how hotly this rivalry is contested.
“The intensity is there for me personally,” said Jimond Ivey, the elder statesman in the UA locker room who is experiencing the game’s atmosphere for the ninth time. “It’s a rivalry and the intensity is going to be there. Obviously, we want to win bad and that’s the most important thing.”
Ivey admits the difficulty in conveying that intensity level to some of his teammates as they’ve had limited or no experience playing in the game. Only he and forwards Daniel Utomi and Emmanuel Olojakpoke have experienced the rivalry.
“It is hard when you’re just talking about it and not playing in it and just seeing it,” he said. “We try to do our best to tell them how intense the games are and how different the environment is compared to any other game.”
And Ivey certainly understands what’s necessary to succeed against the Flashes.
“The one thing you can’t do is get too high or get to low. It’s going to be runs made by both teams,” he said. “Whoever gets low when the other team goes on a run, it can diminish the other team.”
Ivey looks more to the mental side when it comes to the ebbs and flows, UA coach John Groce looks to the X's and O's against KSU and there is one thing that certainly catches his eye when it comes to coach Rob Senderoff’s team. The Flashes are one of the conference’s leaders in turnover margin, ranking third in the league, averaging more than three turnovers per game fewer than their opponents.
The Flashes tend to keep four guards, including senior Jaylin Walker (23.2 points per game) on the floor. That speed allows them to create scoring opportunities via turnovers.
“They’re No. 1 in forcing turnovers in the league,” Groce said. “They use that speed to rotate, trap and what ends up happening is if you turn the ball over against them … then it leads to electricity in transition and it’s unguardable.”
Groce said the key for the Zips is to do what they’ve done all year — play defense.
UA ranks 41st nationally in field-goal percentage defense and 48th in 3-point defense. That aspect of their game has been consistent for the team this year.
“To defend the way we’ve defended takes a lot of effort and desire on our guys’ part,” Groce said. “It’s the offense right now where we’ve got to be more efficient and we have to find a way. We keep saying it, but we haven’t found it. It sounds like a broken record.”
Right now, the plan is for the Zips to change that tune.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.