Defending MAC Champs in the Phog Tonight

After cruising past Coppin State Friday night, Kansas opens December with a bang against the Kent State Golden Flashes, a mid-major powerhouse who won a school-record 25 regular-season games last season (28-7 overall) and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

Tipoff is 8 p.m. tonight at Allen Fieldhouse. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

Kent State (3-2), the defending Mid-American Conference champions, may not be a known team to the casual basketball fan. But to those who follow college hoops, KSU is hot on the basketball map. The Golden Flashes are one of seven teams in the nation to win 20 games each of the last 10 seasons, and since 1998-99, Kent State ranks among the top 15 in the nation in victories.

After opening the season 3-0 and extending their home-winning streak to a school-record 18 games, the Golden Flashes (3-2) look to rebound after losing two games in the South Padre Island Invitational to Illinois (69-63 in OT) on Friday and Texas A&M (77-71) Saturday.

Make no mistake, though, Kent State is a quality team which will pose a strong test for Bill Self’s Jayhawks (4-1). The Golden Flashes return three starters and eight letterwinners off last year’s NCAA team, which set a school record with 300 steals.

Kent State averages 75.2 points per game and allows 65.2. The Golden Flashes are a strong shooting team (48.4 field goal percentage) and defensive squad, recording 46 steals to their opponents’ 18.

Kansas is hoping to improve on a lackluster second half against Coppin State (KU won 85-53) and play its best game of the season to open December.

“They’re good,” Self said of Kent State. “Those guys have won a ton of games in their career. This is one of those games that as the season goes on, it’s like, ‘Why did we schedule them?’ It’s kind of a Miami (Ohio) game last year. (KU grinded out a 78-54 win against the RedHawks from the MAC, outscoring them just 39-34 in the second half.)

“We’re going to have to play better and tougher than we did (against Coppin State). They have experienced guys with strong bodies, and they’ll take it right to us.”

Kent State is led by All-American candidate and 2008 MAC Player of the Year Al Fisher. The 6-1 senior guard averages 21.8 points per game and also paces Kent State with 12 three-point field goals and 17 assists, and is tied for team lead with eight steals. Junior guard Chris Singletary is also a force, averaging 15.2 points with 15 assists. Senior forward Julian Sullinger is next in scoring at 8.2 points per game, while junior center Brandon Parks — the team’s most improved player — averages 6.2 points and a team-high 6.2 boards per game.  

Senior guard Jordan Mincy is the fifth starter, averaging 3.6 points and 2.3 assists and tied with Fisher for team lead with eight steals. Junior forward Anthony Simpson gives Kent State a spark off the bench with 8.0 points per game and a team-best six blocks.

Fisher is certainly Kent State’s go-to guy. He put on a show for the ages in the Golden Flashes’ 76-74 overtime victory against St. Louis on Nov. 19, scoring a game-high 35 points and 16 of Kent State’s 17 points in OT. He made all seven shots in overtime, including the game-winner with 2.1 second remaining. Fisher  exploded for 27 of the Golden Flashes’ final 28 points.

“I can’t describe in words the way Fisher played down the stretch,” said head coach Geno Ford. “It was the best offensive performance I have ever seen in person. He hit tough shot after tough shot and made all seven shots he took in overtime. It was like something you’d see on ESPN Classic.”

Self has great respect for Fisher.

“He’s strong, he’s good,” Self said. “He can go get his shot whenever he wants to. Do we have a lockdown defender yet? I would hope it could be Brady (Morningstar) and Tyshawn (Taylor), but as of now, I don’t think we have one yet, so that will be a big challenge for somebody to be able to guard him.”

Taylor suffered a left ankle injury against Coppin State, but said after the game he’ll be fine.

Singletary is another tough player in KSU's backcourt. Ford has high expectations for the 6-4, 220-pound standout.

“I just try to get on him about playing a complete game,” Ford said. ”I told him I want him to have a game with 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Chris can really score, sometimes unselfish to a fault and sometimes he overpasses. He’s a tough matchup. You can put a quick guy on him and he overpowers him. If you put a strong guy on him, he blows by him.

“As confident as Chris is, I don’t think he realizes how good he can be.”

Kent State is playing its third game in four days, while KU is playing its second game in four days and the first of three games this week. The Jayhawks have home games against New Mexico State on Wednesday and Jackson State this Saturday.

“I think players like it because they prefer to play in games,” Self said of the busy schedule. “My personal opinion, I’d rather practice, but we need some real game experience, too.”

Self wants his team to get tougher and stay focused with a mindset to play hard every play. The KU coach will continue to “stress it and get them to execute and understand how you got to play every possession, especially when you get fatigued.”

He knows KU is still a work in progress.

“I would like to see us play an entire 40 minutes,” Self said. “We’re not prepared to do that yet, but we got to keep getting on that every game.”

The Jayhawks will indeed need to play every possession against Kent State. The Golden Flashes are looking for some national respect after losing two tough games in the South Padre Island Invitational.

Kent State had a lead with three minutes to go against Texas A&M on Saturday, but Ford said the Golden Flashes “just couldn’t get a stop when we needed one.”

“I feel like our team got better playing these two games, “ Ford added. “Even though we came away with tough losses against two good teams, it’s better for us than playing sloppy against two bad teams and winning. Hopefully, it shows us how good we can be so that we find a way to get to the next level and win a game like this down the stretch.”

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