Illini face MAC power Kent State in NIT

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Everyone around the country knows about Ohio University’s basketball team now. The Bobcats were the ones who took a hammer to nearly everyone’s NCAA Tournament bracket -- well, maybe not Jon Greenberg’s -- with their upset over Georgetown in the opening round.

The thing is Ohio wasn’t even the best team in the MAC all season. That honor went to Kent State, Illinois’ NIT second-round opponent on Monday night. The Flashes won the conference’s regular-season title. If it weren’t for an Ohio upset of them in the MAC Tournament, they could have been the ones shocking the nation against Georgetown.

As Kalamazoo Gazette reporter and MAC expert Graham Couch told me, there were two teams in the conference this season capable of knocking off an Illinois-caliber team -- Ohio and Kent State.

“Kent State was the most talented team in the MAC this season,” Couch said. “The Flashes have high-major talent at a number of positions, all the way down to sixth man Anthony Simpson, a 6-foot-8 versatile and athletic Rockford, Ill., kid. Chris Singletary, a Chicago product, is a bull of a guard/wing and finished second in the MAC player of the year voting. He can will a team to victory and get the line whenever he wants, though he's prone to foul trouble himself. Singletary could play anywhere, as could high-rising guard Rodriguez Sherman.

“They've got shooters, scorers, a couple really good defenders and most of their key guys are seniors. If they'd played a better schedule and put it together a bit earlier, they might have gotten an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.”

Couch did get a chance to see the Illini this season as well. In one of Illinois’ most dominant games of the season, it destroyed Western Michigan at Assembly Hall.

“If Kent plays well, they'll compete with the Illini,” Couch said. “The Flashes have more weapons and athletes than the Western Michigan team.”

Illinois may be driven to prove it deserved an NCAA Tournament bid, but the Flashes are certainly not someone to be taken lightly.

If they do, they may just be one more March Madness casualty, and it’s not a good feeling. Just ask Georgetown about it.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.