As far as Mid-American Conference standards go, Kent State University can really do no wrong.
The Golden Flashes have been the MAC's best team this season and own all the ingredients necessary to make a run at the conference title and become a legitimate Mid-Major threat in the NCAA Tournament.
With experience, a balanced offensive attack featuring four of the top-20 scorers in the MAC and size and strength in both the frontcourt and the backcourt, Ball State coach Billy Taylor sees in Kent State the blueprint with which he hopes Ball State will grace the Worthen Arena court in the next couple seasons.
But so far against the MAC East Division this season, the Cardinals have presented themselves as early bloomers.
Ball State was a team in desperate search of answers after its first two conference games against Northern Illinois and Central Michigan, averaging just 43 points per game and shooting 25 percent from the field in MAC play.
Something's clicked, though, and it hasn't been more apparent than against the East, where the Cardinals have posted a 4-1 record against what most consider the superior division.
"Really, kind of big picture-wise, I've been very pleased with obviously the progress of the program," Taylor said. "To right now be sitting at 4-1 against the MAC East is a giant step forward for us."
The Cardinals, who share the MAC West lead with Central Michigan University, will get their biggest test of growth tonight when they head to Kent, Ohio, to take on the Golden Flashes, who have simply dominated the West Division the past two seasons. Kent State (17-7, 8-2 MAC) has won 16 straight games against the MAC West, and with a win against Ball State tonight, will have swept its cross-divisional slate for the second straight season.
Second-year Kent State coach Geno Ford said that having an experienced team makes all the difference when games tend to get a little sticky. The Golden Flashes' roster for tonight's game against the Cardinals features six seniors.
"Having veteran teams, I've been around it every which way, and it's always a major positive," Ford said. "We've got to battle ourselves a little bit to not get too comfortable with the amount of veteran guys that we have."
One of those seniors, guard Chris Singletary, has been creating matchup problems since he first put on the Kent State uniform.
Singletary, standing at 6-foot-4 and weighing 220 pounds, has the skillset to play anywhere from point guard, shooting guard or small forward.
The two-time Honorable Mention All-MAC selection and 2006-07 MAC All-Freshman team selection can post up smaller defenders and drive by the larger ones on offense, and wreaks havoc on defense with quick feet and active hands, tying for the team lead in steals (36).
"I think he's their most impactful player on the team now with his scoring, his assists, his rebounding — he's just playing like a senior with great confidence," Taylor said. "Then he draws a lot of fouls on your frontcourt guys because he drives it hard to the basket and gets a lot of contact in there. He's really a tough cover."
Taylor said Kent State's team defense really makes you value every possession. The Golden Flashes lead the conference and rank No. 26 nationally in steals at 8.71 per game.
"We've had some games where we have turned the ball over and this is going to be an intense amount of pressure that we're going to see from Kent," he said. "It's going to be key for us to handle the ball well — without a doubt. When you turn the ball over, they turn it into points very quickly."
But Taylor also pointed out that even with Kent State's amount of athleticism, it is a "unique" team because it values both transition and half-court offense.
"You don't see many teams who have that kind of comfort in their half-court play," Taylor said. "I think they're a little bit different than any team we've seen."
The Golden Flashes offense this season has been led by forward Justin Greene. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound sophomore matches up comparably with Ball State sophomore center Jarrod Jones and possesses similar stats. Greene leads Kent State in scoring at 13.6 points per game and rebounding at 6.3 boards per game, while Jones averages a team-best 12.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
Greene (10th place) is one of four Kent State players whose scoring average ranks in the top 20 of the conference. Singletary (11.3 points per game), senior guard Tyree Evans (11.1) and Rodriquez Sherman (11) form the 17th, 19th and 20th best scorers in the MAC, respectfully.
Taylor said that kind of distribution is something that could also make Ball State a difficult team to prepare for.
Lately, the Cardinals (12-10, 6-4 MAC) have been able to do just that. Sophomore guard Randy Davis's scoring average has increased 2.3 points per game to 7.8 since MAC play began, while senior forward Terrence Watson's has improved by 1.6 points to 8.4, adding more of a threat to the one-two punch of Jones and freshman guard Jauwan Scaife (10 points per game).
"We've seen more of that as we've been here in MAC play because we've had a lot of different guys step up and lead us in scoring," Taylor said. "It certainly makes you a more difficult team to guard if you have four, five or six different guys that can all hurt you with scoring in double-digits or the mid-teens."
By the numbers
43 points, .259 field goal percentage, .148 three-point percentage — Ball State's offensive averages in its first two conference games against Northern Illinois and Central Michigan
0 — number of wins in Ball State's first two conference games
67.5 points, .448 field goal percentage, .438 three-point percentage — Ball State's offensive averages in its eight games since
6 — number of wins Ball State's last eight conference games