Ohio and Kent State will meet on the hardwood Wednesday night, but the teams also will be meeting at a crossroads.
The Bobcats (13-4, 1-2 Mid-American Conference) have struggled lately but open a critical four-game homestand against the Golden Flashes (12-4, 2-1 MAC), who have been on a roll but play four of their next five contests on the road.
The MAC East is still wide-open and extremely competitive early in the 16-game schedule, but a loss for Ohio would guarantee a losing record in its first shot against its divisional foes.
The Bobcats have lost three of their last four contests after starting the season 12-1. During that stretch, Ohio has shot poorly from the field, especially behind the 3-point line.
Meanwhile, the Golden Flashes have won four of their last five contests and boast a high-octane offense that has produced NBA-like figures in recent games. Kent State is coming off a 92-87 win against Bowling Green, and the team also put up 90 points Jan. 2 against Shawnee State.
“We’ve just got to come out and play together as a team and match Kent State’s toughness,” said junior forward Reggie Keely. “They’re a tough team. They’re on a roll right now, so we’ve got to figure out what they do and try to contain them here at home.”
The Golden Flashes are most dangerous when they score at least 65 points. They are 10-2 when hitting that benchmark but 2-2 when they score 64 points or less.
Ohio holds its opponents to less than 63 points per game on average, which is third-best in the MAC. The Bobcats have lost only once this season when they hold their opponents below that threshold.
But Ohio has struggled when its defense has not locked down its foes. The team has allowed more than 65 points in three of its last four games — all losses.
“We’ve got to get our defense back to where it was Wednesday night against Buffalo,” Groce said. “I thought it was decent on Saturday (against Akron), but our offense wasn’t very good. But to beat a good basketball team like Kent we’re going to have to be better at both ends than we were on Saturday.”
Limiting Kent State’s offense comes down to controlling seniors Justin Greene and Michael Porrini. Greene provides a strong post presence for the Golden Flashes while Porrini takes care of business from long range. But focusing on stopping the seniors might create some room for junior guard Randal Holt, who averages 12 points per game.
Ohio also will be tested on the glass. The Golden Flashes are second in the conference in offensive rebounding, while the Bobcats are ninth in defensive rebounding.
Sophomore guard Ricardo Johnson said stopping Kent State would be a team effort but that Ohio was ready for the challenge.
“There’s a lot of confidence,” he said. “We’ve just got to get better every day and do what we can with film and weightlifting and on the court. We’re going through a little adversity. We’ve just got to overcome it."