Wednesday Night: Kent State, Chicago Renaissance and Creighton

USA TODAY Sports

With conference play kicking off around the country, Wednesday night was full of Horizon League and Missouri Valley action. But it was a nonconference game that really caught our eye, as Kent State continues to defy the odds and win.

I think we are all missing out. For the past couple of months, Kent State has quietly put together a very nice season.

But then you look at this numbers and you wonder how this is possible. The Flashes play pretty well on offense, but outside of one single statistic, they are pretty below average defensively.

It is that statistic though that is defining the Kent State team right now: turnovers. Heading into Wednesday night's game against Cleveland State, the Flashes were forcing turnovers on 24 percent of their opponents' possessions, good enough to be among the top 50 in the country.

The problem was that if Kent State didn't cause the other team to turn the ball over, they scored at an amazing clip. More than 50 percent of the 2-point baskets fell. Almost 35 percent of the 3-pointers went in too. It was as if all you had to do against the Flashes was get across half court.

So against Cleveland State, they did one better: they forced the Vikings into turning the ball over on 25 percent of their possessions.

And when they didn't force turnovers, they sent the Vikings to the line where they were their own worst enemy. Cleveland State went just 12-for-25 from the free throw line, which is not the recipe for a win.

The Flashes took this one 72-55. Granted there was no Anton Grady for Cleveland State, and this team really hasn't been the same without the sophomore who has had to undergo his second knee surgery for a torn meniscus (one in each leg) in less than a year. This was not the season we envisioned for Grady, and not the season that Cleveland State envisioned with its star coming back.

But this one was about the Flashes continuing to follow a very unorthodox recipe for success. Led by Chris Evans (who according to Ken Pomeroy "similar seasons" information is putting together a year similar to what Fairfield's Rakim Sanders did last season. That got Sanders some looks from NBA scouts. Just saying) this team isn't doing anything flashy except forcing teams into turnovers.

And they aren't even stealing the ball. Of the 17 Vikings turnovers, only seven were taken away directly by the Flashes. From a team that is known for forcing the gaffes, I would expect to see that number over 50 percent.

Given that neither Akron nor Ohio has looked invincible this nonconference season, I can see Kent State making a case for itself in the race for the MAC title, but nothing will be easy in the MAC East. The Zips and Bobcats aren't going to just give it away.

Though against Kent State, they might do just that.



Hey Chicago, wake up! It is time to support your Horizon League teams. Illinois-Chicago announced its presence earlier this season before it seemingly faltered heading into the conference slate. But the Flames righted themselves in time for Wednesday's opening 65-60 win over Youngstown State.

And they did it by getting back to the defensive effort that had characterized their early season run. This was a team that was holding teams to less than a point per possession, and suddenly that wasn't happening any longer.

Against the Penguins, they let Kendrick Perry get his points (19 on 7 of 12 shooting), but everyone else was held at bay. Perry wasn't going to be able to do it himself, not when the rest of the team shot barely better than 30 percent from the floor.

The win gives the Flames one-third of the wins that it had in conference last season. Given the renewed defensive effort in this one, getting to win number four shouldn't be as difficult as just three were last year.

Gary Talton had 19 points and six assists, and Josh Crittle had 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, in the win.

Meanwhile, the team a little further north in the city was busy making a huge statement.

Loyola went to Valparaiso and took down the Crusaders, 63-54. There might be no bigger win in the short history of Porter Moser's tenure as head coach, and yes, that includes the win over DePaul.

As I was thinking about the Horizon League today, it was about how inconsistent both of the favorites had been. And it wasn't just how the favorites had been, but also the contenders. Cleveland State had its excuse (see Grady, Anton). But the Flames were ... on fire, and cooled a little. Even Youngstown State had backed off its early season spark.

Loyola though was steadily going about its business. The losses aren't even terrible. South Florida (oh don't get me started), Michigan State, and Western Michigan: those are your three. And Western Michigan might just win its division in the MAC, while Michigan State still is Michigan State.

Adding a win over the conference favorite is now really making a statement.

The big exclamation point on that statement was done by Ben Averkamp. The senior had 16 points, five rebounds, five assists and four blocks to make quite a line. The shooting wasn't perfect, but he went 8-for-9 at the free throw line to help clean up his own mess. Christian Thomas added 14 points and Cully Payne had 13 points and seven assists.

Now that Payne has found his shot and is a real threat for the Ramblers (unlike earlier this season, especially that game against Toledo to open the year), Loyola is working with two real threats, and need just one other player to really step up each night. On Wednesday, it was Thomas; against Mississippi State it was Devon Turk.

It just matters what day of the week you ask, someone is going to step up.

Ryan Broekhoff put up 15 points and seven rebounds for Valpo in the loss.

Time to circle Jan. 16 and Feb. 16 sports fans. These two intra-city games are suddenly very interesting.





And lest we forget, Crieghton and Illinois State squared off tonight in one of the pecking order games in the Missouri Valley. The Jays walked away with the 79-72 win in what was one of the signature conference games this season.

Doug McDermott had 15 points and nine rebounds, while Grant Gibbs did him one better: 16 points, six rebounds and seven assists.

Creighton shot an amazing 52.8 percent from the floor and a back-breaking 13-for-25 from 3-point range. Most of that damage was caused by Ethan Wragge, who went 6-for-9 from long range.

This one didn't make the regularly scheduled broadcast in my area, but just based on the stats, I can't believe that Creighton fans will be too thrilled with this win, even though a win is still a win.

As a side note, Jackie Carmichael had one block to go with his 10 points and six rebounds. The single swat made him the all-time leading shot blocker at Illinois State.



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