It's getting close to the end of February. Usually at this point in the season, rivals Kent State and Akron have played each other and are working toward the final game of the regular season when they face off in March. That isn't the case this year. After thirteen MAC games, the two rivals get to face off for the first time this year, and they'll play again in just two weeks. If you ask anyone who cares about the rivalry, they'll probably tell you that it's a shame that the squads have to play so late in the season, and they're absolutely right.
Poor scheduling aside, there is still a game to be played. The injury bug has caught each of the rivals this season. Kent State will likely close out the season without assists leader Xavier Pollard, and freshman phenom Jaylin Walker could be back soon. A huge back court void has ultimately led to the Flashes losing four of the last six, including a three-game losing streak. The bright side to this otherwise poor situation has been the play of Cornell transfer Galal Cancer, who has scored in double figures three times during the stretch, the only times he's scored in double figures all season.
Akron has battled injuries all year as well. Noah Robotham missed the first few games of the year finishing recovery from his ACL injury, Jake Kretzer's back has been giving him trouble all year (he doesn't practice much anymore because he's been so injury prone), Isaiah Johnson's had some trouble with his ankles, Josh Williams missed a game with a sprained ankle, and Pat Forsythe has been battling multiple injuries all year long and missed Tuesday's game with a shoulder injury. His status for Friday is currently unknown.
Next man up, as they say. Head coach Keith Dambrot doesn't want people to feel sorry for his team through all of the injuries. They've got a 21-5 overall and 10-3 MAC record because that's been the case all season. Next man up. It could be a different player stepping up to the challenge every night.
On paper, Akron is a tough matchup for Kent State. They've got more depth inside and out, but perhaps not much as skill on the inside. Kent's Jimmy Hall and Khaliq Spicer against Akron's Johnson and Forsythe is a matchup of some of the better bigs in the MAC. On the perimeter, though, the Zips have the advantage in depth, skill, and experience. The Achilles heel for the Flashes during MAC play has been the three-point shot. They struggle to shoot it at just 33% and struggle to defend it at 37.7% during league play.
The team with better guard play will have the advantage on Friday. Guards Deon Edwin and Galal Cancer are playing at a high level for the Flashes right now. They join Kellon Thomas, who is also having a nice season, scoring 11 per game. They'll have one of their toughest tests of the year with Noah Robotham and Antino Jackson as well as Josh Williams coming off of the bench for the Zips. Kent's guards are much better defensively, but are pretty far behind the Zips' back court when it comes to scoring, especially on the perimeter. If you include Jake Kretzer and Reggie McAdams in that group, that gives Akron a huge advantage in terms of defense, scoring ability, and size.
The key is defense, though. If Akron repeats it's first half from Tuesday night by letting Kent State attack the rim at ease, it could be a long night in a hostile environment for the Zips.
At the end of the day, this is the type of rivalry that will pretty much always result in close games regardless of the level that either team is playing. For example, last year's season finale in Kent featured a beat up Akron team that took the red hot Flashes down to the wire with only a little more than a handful of scholarship players available. Kris Brewer won it with a layup at the buzzer to conclude one of the best games in the rivalry's history despite the fact that many had counted Akron out before tip. In the MAC there are many great rivalries, but in basketball I don't see one another one that matches the magnitude of an Akron vs. Kent State game.
What: Akron @ Kent State
When: Friday February 19, 6:00p.m. EST