Disappointing is not normally a word that you speak of when talking about the Kent State men's basketball program. Your go-to adjectives would include successful, feared, tough and proud among others. But never disappointing.
That's why last season was such an odd one. While quite a few teams would have taken the Flashes' 16-16 record, that sort of showing is not acceptance in the land of twenty-win seasons. The last time that Kent State won less than nineteen games was the 1997-1998 season. The Flashes had gone fifteen straight seasons with winning records. That's almost unheard of.
So what went wrong last year?
To be fair, their schedule was pretty daunting. Now, they didn't face hardly any Power Conference schools other than Temple (who they beat) and Seton Hall (lost by two). The other non-conference losses were to Cleveland State, Bucknell, and Princeton who all finished in the top half of their respective leagues.
Conference play was a bit of a different story as the Flashes lost seven of their first eleven games including games at home against Northern Illinois and roadies at Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan. Kent then won three straight before losing four out of their next five and a first round MAC Tournament game at Miami.
Last season's disappointment can really be pointed to one thing: lack of a go-to scorer. When you think about Kent State's history, they've always had someone who could dominate the game. Guys like Chris Evans, Justin Greene, and Al Fisher could be counted on at any point to step up and make a big basket. Unfortunately last year the Flashes just didn't have that one player to get it done.
That really explains why Kent State wasn't winning like they're used to: they just couldn't score enough. They ranked 211th in the nation in points per game last year which is well below average. Another issue was that the Flashes couldn't create enough scoring opportunities. They finished 267th in the country in assists, and if you can't create chances to score then you're not going to score much.
Coming into this season, Kent State is losing one-third of their scoring and almost 40% of their rebounding from last year. Gone are starters Darren Goodson and Mark Henniger and important bench guys K.K. Simmons and Melvin Tabb. Goodson is the biggest loss as head coach Rob Senderoff will need to replace his nine points and four rebounds per game. Henniger is another significant loss in the KSU frontcourt, and while he didn't do much on the scoring end (seven points per game) he led the team in rebounding.
The frontcourt may be depleted but the backcourt is as strong as ever. Starters Kris Brewer, Derek Jackson and Devareaux Manley return at all three guard positions and will be asked to head up the offensive effort. All scored over nine points per game last year and the triumvirate made up 44% of Kent State's scoring output last year. Kellon Thomas is also a strong backup who averaged six and a half points per game and two assists.
Even though the frontcourt had major personnel losses from last year there are reinforcements. Both Chris Ortiz and Khaliq Spicer have shown flashes of being able to play at a high level but just aren't there yet. These two are really the only returning players in the frontcourt with any experience, most of the other playing time this year will come from newcomers.
The Flashes will have to rely on said newcomers to really fill out the bench and push the starters for playing time. As Kent State is wont to do, they brought in two junior college players to fill needs. Marvin Jones, a 6-foot-10 junior, should get the most playing time as his position is the one with the most need. Gary Akbar, a former Akron commit out of high school, will provide depth on the wing.
Pushing Ortiz at the power forward spot will be Hofstra transfer Jimmy Hall. Hall put up some big numbers at Hofstra before getting kicked off the team for stealing stuff from his coach's house. Yes, that is a true story. Freshman forward Raasean Davis could prove to be the newcomer with the highest ceiling of them all. At 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds he's a mountain of a young man and will prove to be a matchup problem. Assuming he continues to improve he could be one to watch this year.
The schedule is much more manageable than last year, although it is filled with mediocre teams. The only schools on Kent's non-conference schedule that had winning records last year are Yale, North Dakota State and Kansas. The Flashes face five schools that had ten wins or less last year and don't look to be that much improved.
While this is a nice scheduling practice to get back to that 20-win mark, it doesn't really help out in the long run. Playing schools like Illinois-Chicago and Kennesaw State aren't doing anything for your team in conference play. Kent State should go 10-3 or 9-4 in the non-conference portion of their schedule, which is right where they were last season. The Flashes will have to fare much better in conference play to get back to the top of the MAC East standings.
If a lot of things go right for the Kent State Golden Flashes this year, they can certainly contend for the MAC East title and a top five seed in the MAC tournament. Brewer, Jackson and Manley will be improved and should spearhead an effort to do better than the 62 points that Kent State averaged per game last year. What really needs to happen for a successful season is to get something out of the frontcourt, be it from Spicer, Ortiz, Hall, or someone else. Without a proven big man, the Flashes could get eaten alive on the boards and could have many one-and-out possessions.
Basically this season could go one of two ways. The Flashes find a big man, shoot well and pick it up during conference play to ride a #3 seed into the MAC quarterfinals. They most certainly could also be worse than they were last year after the huge frontcourt losses. It will be a season of unpredictability and uneasiness for the Kent State faithful, and it could be a struggle to get back to that 20-win mark that everyone is so used to.