Kent State and Western Michigan will do battle on Tuesday night to open MAC play, and each team appears to be in entirely different spots.
The Broncos (6-7) are one of two MAC programs with losing records entering conference play. The other is Miami which, ironically, also has a 6-7 record with a win over Northeastern. WMU has struggled maintaining a high level of play all season in the absence of star forward Connar Tava. Tava is redshirting his senior season due to an injury suffered pre season. His absence showed in a big way in very winnable games that ended up in the "L" column for the Broncos, such as the triple overtime defeat at home to IPFW and the loss at James Madison. Missing Tava in the lineup has undoubtedly contributed to a disappointing win total in a non conference schedule that, prior to Tava's injury, looked rather promising.
The bright spot for the Broncos in the first 13 games has been the leadership of Tucker Haymond and the emergence of Thomas Wilder as a scoring point guard. Haymond is averaging 17.8 points and leads the Broncos in scoring and is continually WMU's go-to option. Wilder, averaging 16.1 points per game, has shown the ability to get into the paint and score as well as get to the free throw line where he leads the team hitting 77.9 percent.
The Flashes (9-4) are off to a more encouraging start through the first two months of the season. The four losses came at the hands of Missouri Valley Conference leading Southern Illinois, Pittsburgh, SMU and Penn State. Aside from the SMU loss, all games were very close. The close nature of the contests provides a bit of insulation for criticism that Kent State lacks a true signature win having beat just two teams - Canisius and NJIT - currently boasting winning records. There may be even more yet to this Kent State team than meets the eye.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Jimmy Hall is leading the way for Kent State. Hustle Belt's preseason number three player in the MAC leads the Flashes in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 15.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Hall hasn't had an explosive scoring performance since November but has been far from cold since, scoring below double figures just once all season.
Coming up big for the Flashes so far this season has been University of Maine transfer Xavier Pollard. Pollard, a senior guard, sat the 2014-2015 season due to NCAA transfer rules and is seeing his first season of action in Kent. Pollard has made quite an impact in just a short period of time, averaging 11.8 points and 3.1 assists per game, including a 23 point surge in November in a loss against Pittsburgh. Also adding production for the Flashes is junior guard Kellon Thomas, the third Kent State player averaging in double figures at 12.7 points per game.
Despite their records, WMU and Kent State as a team appear very similar on paper. The Flashes, however, average three fewer turnovers per game and shoot slightly better from the field at 45.8 percent, but are significantly less effective from behind the arc than are the Broncos, who shoot at a 35.5 percent clip. Shooting from the three point line may well be the difference in the game, as Western Michigan will have a tough time on the defensive end guarding the trio of Hall, Pollard and Thomas. For Kent State, it will have to slow down the WMU backcourt that has been very productive offensively thus far this season and hope to generate turnovers from the young Broncos.
What: Kent State at Western Michigan Men's Basketball
Where: University Arena - Kalamazoo, MI
When: 7:00 p.m
The game can be viewed live on ESPN3