Kent State basketball looks to make second straight MAC title run

Kent+State+then-sophomore+guard+Jaylin+Walker+claps+after+making+a+shot+in+the+first+half+against+Akron+at+the+M.A.C.+Center+Friday%2C+March+3%2C+2017.+Kent+State+lost+66-56.%C2%A0

Kent State then-sophomore guard Jaylin Walker claps after making a shot in the first half against Akron at the M.A.C. Center Friday, March 3, 2017. Kent State lost 66-56. 

Henry Palattella

It was a preseason practice, but it seemed more like a tournament game.

Jaylin Walker hit a three-point shot and jawed at his teammates. Jonathan Nwankwo threw down a breakaway dunk with so much force that it echoed through the M.A.C. Center. Danny Pippen finished off an alley-oop and literally fell into the arms of his teammates, who were waiting underneath the basket, cheering.  

The practice was reminiscent of the intensity the team had last year when they beat out the top three seeds in the Mid-American Conference Tournament.

The team will need that intensity because when the Flashes take on Youngstown State Saturday, they’ll be doing so with a target on their back.

“We’ll be ready for that,” coach Rob Senderoff said. “We’ve got to make sure we are competing even harder this year and that we’re even more selfless than last year.”

When the Flashes traveled to Sacramento in March to take on UCLA in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it allowed the Flashes to have a plethora of new opportunities. The game was the final one in the first round, which meant most college basketball fans in the nation tuned in, and for the most part, the Flashes didn’t disappoint. They fought off a slow start to stay in the game and managed to cut the deficit to five points during the second half. The Flashes — who were the No. 14 seed in the southern part of the bracket — came into the game with a record of 22-15. UCLA was the No. 3 seed with a record of 29-4.

For Senderoff, he believes the exposure will help the Flashes as a team.

“We recruit on our winning tradition,” he said. “For all of these guys we’re recruiting — in their lifetime all Kent has done is win. We’re selling that.”

The UCLA game was the sixth time in the past 18 years the Flashes had made it to the NCAA Tournament, and it was the experience of a lifetime for the players.

“I was just in the basketball office looking at pictures, and it just really hit me,” Kent State guard Jalen Avery said. “At the game, I was mad that we lost. It didn’t really feel as amazing at it feels now.”

Against UCLA, the Flashes played a team with NBA talent.  

Bruins’ point guard Lonzo Ball, who scored 15 points against the Flashes, was drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in April, while guard T.J. Leaf was drafted 18th by the Indiana Pacers.

The 17,000-seat Golden 1 Center was far from the 6,327-seat M.A.C. Center the Flashes call home.

“It was weird,” Avery said. “But at the end of the day, it was basketball, and we just started playing.”

The team and the M.A.C. Center will have a new look this season, as the court now sports lightning bolts on both ends of the court. Every home game will now be on ESPN3 as part of the MAC ESPN package.

The biggest task the team will be charged with is replacing Jimmy Hall, who graduated this summer after scoring more than 1,500 points in three years.

“I feel like people realize how much harder we need to work as a team this year,” Avery said. “We lost a lot with the seniors so we need to step up to get back to the tournament.”

That production looks to be shouldered by Walker, who averaged 15.8 points per game last season and was named MAC Tournament MVP. Walker — who was named to the preseason All-MAC Team — is one of the main reasons the Flashes earned two first-place votes in the preseason coaches’ poll. The Kent State’s biggest rival also has a different look, as Keith Dambrot left Akron to take the coaching job at Duquesne.

“I think the league’s good,” Senderoff said. “I think the biggest thing is going to be how your team is playing is February.”

It’s the tradition the Flashes think will have them contending.

“We’ve always had a lot of hard workers in our program — guys that don’t come in with the highest (reputations) recruiting-wise, but they work,” said Eric Haut, the associate coach who was a member of the team that reached the Elite Eight in 2002. “I think our seniors and juniors have set a great example for the rest of the team.”

Henry Palattella is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]