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Kent State-Western Michigan Preview: The First Place Rescheduling Shuffle

Thank the snow. Heavenly, heavenly snow.

On the original date of this game (February 2), WMU was a modest 4-3 in MAC  play, just second in the West trailing Ball State. Since the snowstorm that earned their reprieve against the Golden Flashes, WMU has gone 4-1 including a double-digit win at Bowling Green, a narrow escape against OHIO, and that furious comeback during the Illinois State BracketBuster.

But you can't escape Kent State forever, although you can catch them on a losing streak.

A trip to Kalamazoo would've been a one-game roadie sandwiched between comfortable wins against Toledo and Central Michigan. Instead, they now go to WMU at the tail-end of a four-game swing that included trips to DeKalb, Oxford, and Philadelphia. They've also dropped their last two games — defeats at Miami and Drexel, and although the scores were close, the difference was evident. Justin Greene is normally good for about 16 points a game, but he's had 18 combined in his last two, including a horrid 7-for-29 shooting from the field and 4-for-9 from the line.

But picking up the slack has been their bench spark, Carlton Guyton. In those two losses he's put up 20.5 points per game, shot 7-for-7 on free throws, and has been blamed for just two turnovers compared with four assists. He's had a remarkable comeback from his arrest/suspension in December for suspicion of auto theft; the charges were soon dropped and he was reinstated to the team. During his absence, the team went just 2-3.

So those are your inside-outside keys for Kent State. Guyton can't do it alone, and Greene is getting his opportunities but people are just shuttting him down. So that's what Flenard Whitfield must do tonight. It looks like he's recovered from his injury last week that really frightened the Broncos chances of contending for the division, but his second-half surge practially saved his team's collective hindquarters as they struggled to put away ISU.

The other half of WMU's super duo, which makes up for-lack-of-a-better-name "Flenmetrius," is guard Demetrius Ward, their top scorer at 14.4 points/game who accures said points better than his teammates in every way except perhaps in the paint: his 39% accuracy from behind the arc and 82% rate at the free throw line are both team bests. You can also count on him for about a steal per game, but you'll need more than that to defend Guyton.

So those are the four key players, but for such a game, the key will be which third- and fourth- options step up. For Kent State, it's probably blasphemous to call Rodriquez Sherman a "third option," since he technically scores more than Guyton and has had two 25-points games in his last three, but there are nights where he is a total non-factor. The same goes with Randal Holt, who really IS a a third or fourth guy, even though he leads the team in 3-pointers. That's basically his game; 59 percent of his shots are for three, and it accounts for 54 percent of his scoring.

For WMU, the secondary options are freshmen Juwan Howard Jr. and Matt Stainbrook. Because of their experience, they might score 20, or they might score two. We don't know.

But we do know that this game can change who's in first. No more of this half-game rigamarole. A Kent State win ties them with Miami for first in the East, and a WMU loss puts them back to a tie with Ball State in the west. And naturally, the other outcome results in one-game leads in each division.

So which instinct do you go with? Home field advantage, conference record, change in date/time, or West vs. East? Hint: don't take the latter, because the Broncos are the exception that proves the rule; they're 3-2 in cross-divisional games, meaning they'll be the only team in their division that won't have a losing record against the other six. Do you automatically take the 17-9 team over the 15-10 challenger? It's not a huge difference in record. Are you more of an RPI man? Kent State's 97 is much better than WMU's 176. Pomeroy ratings aren't much better: 129 to 195.

But the difference just might be home court advantage, because Kent State isn't a great team that defies geography. They're 3-8 on the road, while the Broncos have lost just three games at University Arena: Illinois, Buffalo, and Loyola-Chicago. It may come as a surprise on the surface, but this preview has gone on long enough to convince me that Western Michigan oughta come out on top by four points. And you can thank the snow and location for that.

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