With Mid-American Conference play getting into full swing on Tuesday night, here is a look at the two Northeast Ohio schools in the Eastern Division and how they fared through their non-conference schedules in the months of November and December.
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AKRON ZIPS (10-3)
Since Keith Dambrot became head coach fo the Zips 13 years ago, he has turned the UA program into one of the winningest in the conference.
Along with the winning, the expectation level increases as well. The Zips were favored by the pre-season polls to defend their Eastern Division championship and head into their MAC opener Tuesday night at home against Bowing Green with a 10-3 mark. That matches Central Michigan for the most non-conference wins among MAC squads.
The Zips’ season opened with a surprising loss at Youngstown State in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament. UA then rattled off six straight victories, winning the Savannah Invitational in Georgia by defeating Georgia Southern Air Force, and Mercer en route to the title.
The low point of the non-conference season came in early December when UA lost two of three. However both of the setbacks came on the road to nationally ranked powers -- Creighton & Gonzaga, respectively.
Akron followed with a home win over Marshall before capturing its second in-season tournament at the Sun Bowl/Don Haskins Invitational, defeating UC-Irvine and Maryland Eastern Shore to garner the title.
Individually, senior Isiah Johnson has been the main weapon offensively for the Zips. The pre-season All-MAC first teamer leads with a 14.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. With many of his shots coming close to the basket, Johnson is shooting 63.8 percent from the field. He also leads in assists at 3.3 helpers per game and has led UA scoring in seven contests.
Helping Johnson in the scoring is a pair of junior guards.
Antino Jackson is averaging 12 points per game and leads the Zips in free throw percentage at 80.6 percent. His play in West Texas included 23 in the semi-final win over UCI has raised his game.
Noah Robotham is third in the team in scoring at 11.7 ppg and has taken up the slack from three-point range following the departure of Jake Kretzer and Reggie McAdams. Robotham has connected on 43.1 percent from beyond the arc.
One thing Dambrot likes to do during the Non-conference schedule is to evaluate his bench prior to MAC play. Two players he has used with effectiveness are freshman Tavian Dunn-Martin, who gives him extra punch from three, and Michael Hughes, who has given Johnson some much needed rest.
Disappointments so far? Maybe the slow development of sophomore guard Josh Williams after making a splash his freshman season, as well as junior Jimmon Ivey who has shown flashes of brilliance but nothing much consistently.
The Zips will bring a pair of streaks to their Tuesday night opener against the Falcons. The first is a home winning streak of 23 consecutive games and the second is a 15-game winning streak over BGSU.
KENT STATE GOLDEN FLASHES (8-5)
The Golden Flashes were not expected to do much this season. Pre-season polls had them fourth in the Eastern Division, even though they have one of the MAC’s top players in Jimmy Hall. Kent State opens its MAC schedule Tuesday night at home against Ball State.
The regular season began with KSU defeating Cleveland State in overtime at the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament, despite squandering a big second half lead. After beating Mississippi Valley State in the home opener, KSU went 2-2 in the Gulf Coast Showcase, with losses to South Dakota and George Mason salvaging a split with a win over Wofford.
After losing at Northeastern, the team returned to the MAC Center for a four-game home stand, going 3-1 with wins over Grambling, Niagara, and a surprisingly good NJIT squad. However, a bad loss to Wright State before Christmas spoiled the stand.
The Flashes finished their non-conference schedule with two road games, appearing non-competitive in a loss at Oregon State, but then bouncing back with a surprising win at Texas.
Kent State’s is led by Hall, who is one of the MAC top scorers at 17.7 points per game and rebounds (11.2 caroms). He is also hitting his free throws at a 78.2 percent clip.
After last season, Hall did declare for the NBA draft. However, did not sign with an agent and returned for his senior season. The First Team All-MAC Preseason player has picked up where he has left off, just recently passing the 1,000 point mark in his time at KSU.
One big key to the offense is the return to health of Jaylin Walker. The sophomore missed the MAC portion of last season with a foot injury but has been productive in his return this season. He shot 51.3 percent from the field in non-conference play while averaging 14.5 points per contest -- second to Hall.
Among others who have contributed is senior Deon Edwin at 11.3 points per game. He single handedly won the CSU game with his scoring in overtime.
One nice surprise is the play of freshman Mitch Peterson. He was a starter early in the season and recently has come off the bench. He is averaging only 4.7 points per game, but is shooting 36.7 percent from 3-point range.
Another player who has played well is Desmond Ridenhour. The transfer from Duquesne is averaging 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds off the bench. However his biggest strength in recent games has been his defense.