For the third time this season, rivals Akron and Kent State will play one another. While the two teams would tell you every meeting between them is important, Saturday night’s MAC championship game will be at a completely different level.
The two schools are separated by only 16 miles, and the proximity is apparent to Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff. Looking ahead to the title game, he mentioned how many friends and neighbors he has who are Akron or Kent State graduates.
“It’s great, I think, for northeast Ohio basketball,” he said.
But what may exist as a friendly rivalry between local schools will change into something more on Saturday night. A trip to the NCAA Tournament is on the line. Akron would love nothing more than to go dancing at the expense of its rival. Kent State would certainly enjoy spoiling Akron’s season and stealing the bid away from the top team in the conference.
So who truly has the edge going into Saturday night’s championship game? The two teams split their regular season series with each winning on the other’s home floor. They also both rely on a strong post presence. Akron has MAC Player of the Year Isaiah Johnson patrolling the paint, while Kent State fields Jimmy Hall, who put up 22 points and 10 rebounds in the semifinals.
Based on their history this season and their strong post play, it is difficult to determine who has the upper hand. It may come down to guard play, of which Akron seems to have the advantage. Akron’s trio of Antino Jackson, Jimond Ivey, and Noah Robotham has played excellent defense during the conference tournament and can create turnovers that lead to points. In Akron’s semifinal win over Ball State, Jackson recorded five steals and scored 19 points in all. In their quarterfinal win, it was Robotham who came through on offense with 19 points of his own. All three of them can be dangerous on any given day.
Also working against Kent State is that Saturday’s game will be their fourth of the week. The Golden Flashes, unlike Akron, did not get a first-round bye. Kent State had to play a wild overtime game with Central Michigan to start the week, then had to win close, emotional battles to pull upsets on Thursday and Friday. Fatigue may start to set in by Saturday night, but Kent State has shown no signs of it so far.
The key for Kent State may be to attack Akron at its strength: the post. If Hall can go after Johnson and try to get Akron’s big man in foul trouble, it could open up more opportunities for Hall to work. Kent State was able to employ a similar strategy against Ohio. Hall went after Ohio’s Jason Carter and Carter was limited to just 21 minutes before finally fouling out of the game.
While there are certainly ways Kent State could win on Saturday (they already proved they can beat Akron once this season), I believe Akron will win. If the Zips are playing up to their potential, they have too many weapons for Kent State to contend with. Running their offense through Johnson worked against Ball State in the semifinals and I would expect to see them try the same against Kent State.