Friday nights in college basketball are getting better and better as we get closer to March Madness. Those looking for something to watch tonight are going to find a Mid-American Conference rivalry game on ESPNU between the Kent State Golden Flashes and the Akron Zips. The Battle for the Wagon Wheel on the gridiron was won by the Zips and they can draw first blood in the basketball rivalry for this season. Akron is favored by 8.5 points at James A. Rhodes Arena, where they haven’t lost since February 21, 2015. The betting masses can use the promo code ‘BANG200’ over at DSI Sportsbook to snag a 100 percent deposit bonus for the sportsbook and the same for the live casino upon their initial deposits.

Kent State is 9-12-1 against the spread with a 14-12 record. There could be a good amount of scoring in this matchup, as the Golden Flashes are 12-9 to the over this season. Akron is 12-10. The Zips enter with a 22-4 record and a 9-13 ATS mark. These two schools are separated by just about 15 miles and this is a longstanding rivalry. The Golden Flashes are 6-7 in conference play. The Zips are 12-1 and hold a four-game lead over Ohio for the top seed in the upcoming MAC Tournament, which is played at campus sites for the first round and then moves to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

The Golden Flashes are just 4-8 ATS in MAC play because they haven’t played a whole lot of defense. Kent State has allowed the opposition to shoot 46.2 percent in league games and the opposition has scored 78.1 points per game. Despite the winning record, Ken Pomeroy has the Golden Flashes ranked 173rd nationally. Kent State also played the 320th-ranked non-conference schedule, so they really didn’t set the bar very high before playing conference foes. Last year’s team went to the CIT and won a couple of games to finish with 23 wins, the most in the Rob Senderoff era. Kent State hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2008 and it will take a remarkable run in Cleveland to end that drought. Amazingly, the all-time head-to-head series between these two teams shows a one-game edge for Kent State at 73-72. That could very well change tonight.

The Golden Flashes rely heavily on senior Jimmy Hall. Hall tried to stay close to his Brooklyn home by committing to Hofstra, but he wound up transferring to Kent State for his final three seasons of eligibility. Hall averages a double-double with 18 points and 10.5 rebounds per contest, including over four offensive boards per game. He’s shooting almost 51 percent from the floor and nearly 76 percent from the stripe. Jaylin Walker and Deon Edwin are the only other Flashes averaging double figures on a nightly basis. Walker has taken more three-point shots than two-point shots, which is a contributing factor to his 39.9 percent rate from the floor. Edwin is shooting nearly 47 percent. The Flashes have turned the ball over more often than they have been credited with assists, so taking care of the ball has been a problem.

Akron head coach Keith Dambrot has another team worthy of at-large consideration, but it’s incredibly difficult to get a berth in the NCAA Tournament in a conference like this without winning it. The season-opening loss to Youngstown State doesn’t help, but the Zips also didn’t show very well in losses at Creighton or at Gonzaga. Had they fared better in those games, a case could be made. Seeing how every MAC team except Akron has at least five conference losses, it’s clear that this isn’t a very good league and that certainly impacts the Selection Committee’s analysis. At the very worst, Akron will go back to the NIT, but they have their eyes on the field of 68. That can be a challenge for teams at this stage because the Zips are all but a lock to win the MAC and be the #1 seed for the conference tournament. Their only path to potential glory runs through Cleveland, so motivation is a factor over these last five regular season games. At least the Zips have a home winning streak to worry about. They can run it up to 30 in this one.

The Zips are very athletic and have been quite efficient on offense this season. Isaiah Johnson is shooting almost 63 percent from the field with 16.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Kwan Cheatham Jr. and Antino Jackson are the only others in double figures regularly, but they’re shooting 42.5 percent and 45.8 percent, respectively. Cheatham and Jackson have taken 279 threes combined and have made 115. The Zips are shooting 47.6 percent as a team, even with a large number of three-point attempts. This is a team that loves to play out on the perimeter, but also has a couple of quality bigs in Johnson and Jimond Ivey with which to get the ball inside for easy looks or kick it out for threes. Akron is not good defensively, as they rank 221st in KenPom’s metrics and are also the luckiest team in the country per that metric, but they are a top-40 offensive squad.

College Basketball Free Pick: Akron Zips -8.5

Kent State has a lot of defensive holes and Akron can exploit those in a big way. The Zips have played some really close games lately, so that’s a problem, as complacency may have set in a little bit for Dambrot’s team. If they can flip the switch to blow out a rival and extend their home winning streak, this game should be no contest. There’s some risk in expecting them to do that, but they’re the superior team. Their numbers may be a bit inflated by being far and away the best team in the league record-wise, but this is a spot to play on them.