Hardesty: Flashes look to break Zips rivalry deadlock at the MAC next month

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

It’s amazing how even the Kent State-University of Akron men’s basketball rivalry has been the past couple decades.

Which is why you get the distinct feeling that the Zips’ 67-55 win over the Golden Flashes on Feb. 3 at James A. Rhodes Arena in Akron was only the first of three clashes between the arch-rivals this season.

The Flashes and Zips were the top two teams in the Mid-American Conference last season when they faced each other three times, including in the MAC Tournament Championship Game, which Akron won 75-55 to earn the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

And they are again among the top teams in the MAC this season. Kent State, Akron and Toledo sit tied atop the standings, each with a 9-2 record in the conference. The Flashes have the best overall mark in the conference at 19-5, followed by Toledo at 18-6, then Akron and Ball State at 17-7.

After those four, Ohio U. is the only other team with a winning overall record at 13-11, while Buffalo is sitting at .500 with a 12-12 mark.

So unless Toledo and/or Ball State manage to spoil the party, the MAC Tournament championship is almost certainly going to be colored some shade of blue and gold.

All you have to do is look at the recent history of the rivalry and the MAC Tournament.

Using 2001 as a starting point, the year the Trevor Huffman-led Flashes burst onto the national scene in what would be Gary Waters’ final season as head coach, KSU and Akron have combined to play in the MAC tourney championship game a staggering 19 times. Not merely playing in the conference tournament 19 times, but actually playing in the title game 19 times in the 21 seasons it was held in that span.

Kent State played in the championship game nine times, winning five: 2001, 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2017. Akron played in the championship game 10 times, winning four: 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2022.

The rivals have played each other in the MAC Championship Game four times, splitting those meetings 2-2. The Flashes beat the Zips in 2008 (74-55) and 2017 (70-65), and the Zips beat the Flashes in 2011 (66-65 in overtime) and 2022 (75-55).

Then there are the numbers inside the numbers. The Flashes played in four straight championship games from 2001-04, and they won half the conference’s titles in an eight-season span from 2001-08.

Akron’s MAC Tournament success has been more condensed. It took the Zips a while to reach the MAC Championship Game, but once they did, they became a fixture in it. Akron played in the title game a remarkable seven consecutive seasons from 2007 to 2013 under then-coach Keith Dambrot.

There’s also the little matter of the 2020 season. The Zips finished with the MAC’s best overall record (24-7) and best conference mark (14-4) to earn the top seed in the MAC Tournament. They were scheduled to play eighth-seeded Ohio University in the MAC Quarterfinals on March 12. But just before the game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, the Mid-American Conference announced that the rest of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were canceled due to concerns over the emerging Covid-19 pandemic.

Akron, being the top seed and owning the MAC’s best overall and conference records, was officially recognized as the 2020 Mid-American Conference champion. So while the tournament was not completed that year, that technically gives the Zips a fifth championship since our 2001 starting point.

Tying, of course, the Golden Flashes.

Could this year be the tiebreaker? Stay tuned.

Then there’s the rivalry overall in that span. That was tied as well, with each team beating the other 26 times until the Zips’ 67-55 victory Feb. 3 gave them a 27-26 edge in the series.

But the Flashes won’t have to wait long to draw even again: The teams are scheduled to meet March 3 at the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center in Kent — where KSU has yet to lose this season. And home court has proven to be a major advantage in the rivalry: Kent State has beaten Akron 16 times at the M.A.C. Center since 2001, while the Zips have beaten the Flashes — you guessed it — 16 times at Rhodes Arena in the same span.

Akron has won six of the last 10 games in the series, but one thing the Zips don’t have that the Flashes do is a victory in the NCAA Tournament. UA almost got one last year, falling to UCLA 57-53 in an East Regional First Round game in Portland, Oregon.

The Golden Flashes, meanwhile, shocked Indiana in the first round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament, then followed that with what has since become a legendary run to the Elite Eight in 2002. That Cinderella showing featured wins over Oklahoma State, Alabama and Pitt before it was ended, ironically, by the Hoosiers.

NCAA success aside, any way you slice it, this is a deliciously even (and heated) rivalry — and it feels like we’re just getting warmed up this season. March 3 can’t get here soon enough.

It was fun to run across some “blast from the past” names in doing research for this column, particularly Kent State’s MAC Tournament MVPs since 2001. Huffman won the award in 2001 and 2002, Kevin Warzynski was the Most Valuable Player in 2006, Haminn Quaintance earned the honor in 2008, and Jaylin Walker was tourney MVP in 2017.

But there’s one more name that needs to be mentioned.

Kent State had played in and lost three MAC Tournament title games in 1984, ’87 and ’89 — and all three defeats were of the hard-luck variety: 42-40 to Miami (Ohio), 64-63 to Central Michigan and 67-65 to Ball State.

But the Flashes finally broke through and won their first MAC tourney championship with a 49-43 win over Miami in 1999. The tournament MVP that season at the SeaGate Convention Centre in Toledo?

John Whorton, who passed away Jan. 27 at age 44.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.