Akron-Kent Preview

Updated 1/21/2000
RUSTY MILLER
AP Sports Writer

Some might say the biggest rivalry in the Mid-American Conference is Bowling Green-Toledo. Others might point to the turf wars among the three Michigan members, Eastern, Central and Western.

But it's hard to argue that with Kent and Akron, who meet for the 106th time Saturday at Akron in a rivalry that has survived awful teams and awful games.

"It's a great rivalry game - maybe the premier rivalry in the conference now due to the proximity," Akron coach Dan Hipsher said.

It was still a big game even when the teams were among the worst in the nation. Even when they stunk, the teams were still only 10 miles from each other.

Akron put together five consecutive losing seasons from 1992-1997, four of which ended up at 8-18 and the other included a pitiful, run-the-table 0-18 in the MAC.

Kent lost more than it won in four of those seasons and never lasted more than one game in the MAC tournament any year.

Now Kent is 13-2 overall and 5-1 in the MAC, while Akron is 13-4 and leads the East Division with a 7-1 mark.

The presence of Hipsher and Kent coach Gary Waters has changed the rivalry dramatically.

"I didn't truly have an understanding of it until I got here," said Waters, an assistant at Eastern Michigan for seven seasons before taking over the Golden Flashes in 1996. "When I first got here, I'm going to a luncheon and I'm thinking everything is an easy go. Everybody at the luncheon is saying, 'Hey, good luck tomorrow, but you'd better come home with a win."

Hipsher grew up in northwest Ohio and was steeped in the heated backdoor rivalry between Toledo and Bowling Green.

"But the Kent-Akron thing is everything those games have been," Hipsher said. "Our games, although our facilities aren't quite as big, they're flat sellouts every time we play."

In addition to the usual bragging rights, now the rivalry could decide the division winner in the East.

Kent is the defending MAC tournament champion and Akron, despite suffering its first conference loss last week at home to Miami University, is considered the team with the most weapons in the league.

"Akron seems to have such leadership that it's going to be very difficult to get them rattled for a sustained period of time," said Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon, whose team has been beaten by both teams. "That's really what Kent's game is based on - getting you to panic."

It's an attitude for the Golden Flashes.

"I call this the 'amoeba team," Waters said. "They can change. They can vary."

Akron will be playing in front of a partisan crowd at the James A. Rhodes Arena, but Waters isn't too concerned.

"This team has been at a lot of places and played against a lot of teams in difficult situations," he said.

If Akron wins, the series will be tied at 53 wins for each team. And that would set the stage for an even more important game to break the tie on Feb. 19 at Kent.

In other MAC games Saturday, Central Michigan is at Ball State, Buffalo at Miami University, Eastern Michigan at Toledo, Marshall at Northern Illinois and Western Michigan at Ohio.