It's that time of year. Basketball is just getting started as football season begins to wind down. This time of year is particularly exciting for the region of Northeast Ohio because there's always great football and great basketball going on.
The basketball portion of this equation begins on Saturday November 14 at 7:00pm at the M.A.C. Center on the campus of Kent State University with two matchups between Northeast Ohio mid-major men's basketball programs. The two-game slate starts with Kent State vs. Youngstown State at 7:00 with Akron vs. Cleveland State following that game up at around 9:00.
The event will be held annually and rotate between each of the participants' home arenas. Youngstown State will host in 2016, Akron will host in 2017, and Cleveland State will host in 2018.
Here are previews for each of the games.
A year removed from a share of the MAC East title, the Kent State Golden Flashes, under fifth year head coach Rob Senderoff, have some high expectations as well as big shoes to fill for the 2015-2016 season.
All-MAC forward Jimmy Hall is the clear cut star of this team coming into the season. Hall came in at number three on our countdown of the top 25 MAC basketball players. The Hofstra transfer, who averaged 16 points and nearly 8 rebounds per game last year, will have some experience with him in the front court. Seniors Chris Ortiz and Khaliq Spicer combined for 11 points and 10.5 boards per game, so the entire unit there is returning.
The area where there is uncertainty with this team is in the back court. The unit lost three great players in Derek Jackson, Kris Brewer, and Dev Manley, who gave the Flashes great perimeter shooting to go with their success down low.
Kellon Thomas, who was injured for most of last year, will return and get some playing time as well as senior transfers Galal Cancer (Cornell) and Xavier Pollard (Maine).
You could say that Jerry Slocum's Youngstown State Penguins are in a similar situation. The projected starting lineup (available on YSUsports.com ) has two players who are new to the program. Freshman Jordan Andrews from LaPlace, Louisiana and sophomore Francisco Santiago from Cleveland, Ohio are newcomers that could make an impact early.
Like the Flashes, the strongest position for the Penguins will be at power forward with senior Bobby Hain, who has averaged double figures in points per game for two straight seasons. He shot 51% from the floor last year and grabbed over seven boards per game. His matchup with Jimmy Hall will be one to pay close attention to.
The 2014-2015 Penguins scored a lot of points, averaging 71.5 per game, but also played some bad defense, giving up nearly 77 points per game, which was nearly dead last in the country. Kent State lost a lot of offensive firepower and it's the first game of a new season, so it's hard to tell what this game will end up like.
This game will tip ~30 minutes following the first game.
No team in college basketball has been hit harder with its top players transferring out than Cleveland State. Following the 2013-2014 season, guard Bryn Forbes, who averaged 15 points per game, decided to transfer to Michigan State. Following last season, center Anton Grady (14.3 points per game) decided to transfer to Wichita State and Trey Lewis (16.3 points per game) left for Louisville.
Not only did two of Gary Waters' best players decide to leave before their eligiility was up, but two more starters, Marlin Mason and Charlie Lee ran out of eligibility following the end of last season.
That means the Vikings will not return a single player who averaged scoring in double figures from a year ago. Instead, the Vikings are left with just two seniors (one being a walk on) and a combined 10 freshmen and sophomores on the roster going into Saturday against Akron.
While Waters' Vikings could take some time to find their identity, Keith Dambrot's Zips are expected to win instantly. Akron has depth, experience, good young players, and a great coaching staff.
The Zips will tip off their quest for 21 wins for an 11th straight year as favorites to win the MAC East. The projected starting lineup with feature a sophomore in Antino Jackson (Status of Noah Robotham is unknown right now) at point guard, true freshman Josh Williams at shooting guard, senior forward Jake Kretzer, junior forward Kwan Cheatham, and senior center Pat Forsythe.
There are a number of players that will come off of the bench despite being capable of starting. The hardest part of Dambrot's job as a game manager is getting the correct players in at the correct time. In a few games last year, 11 different players were in the game for at least 10 minutes.
The key to a return to the NCAA tournament for the Zips will be to stay healthy and stay out of trouble. If the Zips avoid those two problems from last year, don't be surprised to see the Zips atop the MAC once again.
Cleveland State may have the skill and depth to keep up with Akron, but it may boil down to experience, where the Zips have the clear advantage. The one thing that is certain with Cleveland State is that Gary Waters will have his team ready to play. Waters coached Kent State from 1996-2001 and won two MAC coach of the year awards before taking the head coaching job at Rutgers from 2001-2006. Since arriving in Cleveland in 2006, Waters has compiled a 176-127 record along with one NCAA tournament appearance and three NIT appearances.
Video streaming for the Kent State vs. Youngstown State game is available at KentStateSports.com
Radio for Akron vs. Cleveland State is available on Fox Sports 1350 AM.