KENT — If gaining some confidence from a loss is possible, the Kent State men's basketball team pulled it off when it last played Central Michigan.
The Golden Flashes were repeatedly beaten in transition during the mid-February road game, had only seven assists and shot 1-of-14 from 3-point range, yet still trailed by a mere four points with less than two minutes remaining before falling apart down the stretch and losing 84-74.
KSU also played that game, its third in six days, without senior point guard Jalen Avery — who missed his third consecutive game with a sprained ankle.
On Thursday, the fourth-seeded Flashes (22-9) and the No. 5 seed Chippewas (22-10) will meet again with much more at stake in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament. Tip-off from Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena will be about 2:30 p.m
Kent State certainly believes it can reverse its fortunes in the rematch. The Flashes closed the regular season with three wins in four games, and should be at full strength, assuming star shooting guard Jaylin Walker returns from a suspension. Walker, a senior, was held out of last Friday’s regular season finale against the University of Akron by coach Rob Senderoff for an unspecified reason, but all signs point to Walker playing in the MAC Tournament.
“We're ready to go,” Senderoff said. “I think we've played well our last four games, some of our best basketball of the season. Now you want to continue to play for each other, play as hard as you can and find ways to win.”
Beating the Chippewas starts with transition defense according to Senderoff.
Central Michigan averages 82.5 points per game, and plays at a faster pace than any team in the conference.
“They're an elite transition team, and we did not do a good job with transition defense against them,” Senderoff said. “To some degree, until you play them, you just don't realize quite how fast they push the ball. We didn't handle that well over the 40 minutes. We also didn't shoot it very well, and they had something to do with that for sure. Our shot selection has got to be a little bit better. Then in a close game late, we didn't execute on either side of the ball.
“Put those three things together and that's how you lose.”
Overall, the Flashes have been phenomenal in tight games, going 10-1 in games decided by five points or less. They'll also stroll into Cleveland with confidence based on recent postseason success, having gone 6-1 in the past two MAC tournaments, with a title in 2017.
Sharing the basketball and forcing turnovers have been huge keys to success this season for Kent State, which is 22-2 when reaching double digits in assists and 12-1 when opponents have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. On the flip side, the Flashes are 0-7 when they have eight or fewer assists.
“For us to be a good team, we have to share the ball at a high level and make plays for each other,” Senderoff said. “That's a key in every game.”
The Flashes must also keep the Chippewas under control in transition in order to stay alive in the tournament.
“That's easier said then done. They're a really fast team with some really good players,” Senderoff said. “But we've got to do a better job in transition then we did last game.”
The winner will take on the survivor of Thursday's first quarterfinal game between No. 8 seed Akron (17-15) and No. 1 seed Buffalo (27-3) in Friday's semifinals at 6:30 p.m.