Kent State has been one of the most consistent programs of the last twenty years in all of college basketball. They were the class of the MAC for much of the 2000s before Akron and Ohio started to surpass them talent-wise. The Flashes will have a decent team this year, but much remains to be seen if they will be able to hang around in the MAC title race.
There was a bit of a struggle to get there, but the Flashes got the job done. Twenty wins in a year has become such a norm at Kent State that it's become second-nature. The fact is, in fourteen of the past fifteen years, the Flashes have won more than twenty games. And that year they didn't do it? 19-15. Maybe what's most amazing about this (almost) streak is that it has spanned five different coaches. All of those coaches are still Division 1 coaches too: Gary Waters (Cleveland State), Stan Heath (South Florida), Jim Christian (Ohio), Geno Ford (Bradley) and current head coach Rob Senderoff.
Kent State didn't have a great year last year, even if they did win twenty-one games. They started the season off well, beating what was supposed to be a good Drexel team in the first game of the year and winning by fourteen at Nebraska. The conference season was about as up and down as you could get, with wins over Akron and Buffalo (three times) and losses to Bowling Green and Northern Illinois. Kent State got into the College Insider Tournament and won the first game against Fairfield before losing the next round at Loyola Maryland.
Unfortunately the Flashes lose a lot from last year's team. Gone are both Chris Evans (16 points per game) and Randal Holt (15 points per game), which puts them in the same boat as Bowling Green losing their two best players. Bryson Pope also is not with the team anymore after being suspended for academics. In relation to the rest of the MAC, the Flashes rank in the bottom third of both percentage of returning points (49%) and returning rebounds (49%). It's going to be tough to replace both of those guys, but Kent State has been able to find great replacements for their stars.
There are actually many returnees this year, but hardly any who made an impact last season. Kris Brewer returns and will likely move to the starting point guard position. Brewer, the team's highest scoring returning player, was recently ranked the fifteenth best player on our Top 25 MAC Basketball Players Countdown. He'll have the reins to the buggy and the team will go as far as he can take them. Forward Darren Goodson also returns, and although he didn't receive major minutes (just averaged twenty), he certainly made the most of them. He ranked second on the team in rebounds and fourth in scoring and has the chance now to expand those numbers with increased minutes.
Mark Henniger, Dev Manley, Melvin Tabb, and Kellon Thomas also return, and Kent State will need two or three of these guys to take the next step. The bench is a little thin, but can be bolstered by the improved play of these four.
It seems like another Kent State tradition is to take on transfers and JUCO players. Joining the Flashes this year are Derek Jackson (Central Michigan), K.K. Simmons (UNC-Wilmington), Devin Carter (Lake Land College), and seven-footer Blake Vedder (California of Pennsylvania). Jackson and Simmons will contribute right away and may even start. Many will remember Jackson and his outstanding athleticism from the time he was at Central Michigan.
The Flashes normally put together a pretty good schedule and this year is no different. They don't play any blue bloods but they do play some beatable high-major teams. Kent State travels to Philadelphia to play Temple in the ESPN 24-Hour Tip-Off Marathon and plays Seton Hall two days later. Defending MAAC Champion Niagara comes to Kent right before Thanksgiving and Youngstown State makes the hour drive down I-76 a few days later. December brings quality mid-majors Bucknell and Cleveland State to the MAAC Center while Kent State travels to both Charleston and Princeton. That's a pretty tough schedule, especially for a team that is in a mini-rebuilding mode.
This will be an interesting year for Kent State basketball. The team isn't as good as it has been in the past, and Brewer and Goodson are the only proven contributors. The schedule is tough and when you add an inexperienced team with a tough schedule it could mean disaster. Brewer and Goodson need to continue to improve and someone from that Jackson/Simmons/Henniger/Tabb group has to be the third option. Twenty wins will be hard to get with this team, but if any school can do it its Kent State. We've learned to never count them out, and we'd be fools to do that again this year.