In the world of college basketball the story lines that capture our attention are usually Duke-Carolina or Georgetown-Syracuse. In Northeast Ohio there are two Division I teams that do battle twice a year for bragging rights and hardwood glory.
The Akron Zips and Kent State Golden Flashes are born rivals that have grown to hate each other. It is a rivalry born out of proximity, determination and shear competitiveness. The two schools are constantly contending for the Mid-American Conference championship all the while being separated by just 14 miles.
The games sell out on both the campuses of Kent State and Akron, local media covers the games like a hawk, and with the final match up held on the final game of the regular season the MAC title is usually at stake.
In the past 10 of 11 years Kent State has finished with at least 20 wins in a season, won their conference tournament five times and have qualified for the NCAA bracket five times. In 2002, the Golden Flashes advanced to the Elite Eight round of the national tournament before losing to the eventual runner up. Meanwhile the Zips finished with a losing record.
Keith Dambrot has since brought Akron to prominence in his five years with the program. Under his direction he has earned the program a MAC East title and two NIT berths. Even with the program thriving under coach Dambrot Akron is still searching for their first MAC tournament championship. In the past two years he has lead Akron to the finals only to loss two heartbreaking times in a row.
Although Kent took an early in the first round the NCAA bracket 2008 was by far the programs greatest year. The Flashes broke through the mid-major stereotype by being ranked No. 23 in the nation and capped off their tenth straight season with at least 20 wins or more, not even Duke could say that.
However the most satisfying accomplishment of the '07-'08 season was beating Akron not once, not twice, but three times! First in a close 75-69 score that produced a brawl near the end of the game. Second being a last second three-pointer by Kent State great Al Fisher to ice Akron on their senior night after nearly staging a remarkable comeback. The Akron arena was later described as quiet enough to hear a pin drop after that shot.
The third and final game between the two came in the MAC tournament final with Kent State seeded No. 1 and Akron seeded No. 3. This game left no mystery as Kent State trounced Akron 74-55 and earned an at-large bid in the 2008 NCAA tournament. Over 3,000 students from both universities delayed their spring break trips to watch the final game of the tournament at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland where the LeBron James plays.
Whether it be double overtime or ejection for punching, this rivalry is a fierce war that unfortunately goes unnoticed. What Kent State fan could forget alumni Kevin Warzynski's white man Afro or how former Akron guard Nick Dials never smiled. What Zips fan could forget the miracle 2006 sweep of Kent or the agony of reading another story about Kent State from ESPN.
The fans hate each other but still have friends they visit at their respective schools. Akron will continue to come and party in the relatively suburban setting of Kent's houses and student neighborhoods. Kent Staters will still enjoy the nightlife and clubs on the streets of Akron. In all, the two schools maintain a begrudging respect for one another and will continue to bring the rivalry to new heights.