Senderoff takes different approach to building winning program


Kent State men’s basketball head coach Rob Senderoff cheers on the Flashes against the University of Akron on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016 in Kent, Ohio, at the M.A.C. Center. The Golden Flashes won the game 85-76.

Stephen Means

Nine years ago, Kent State’s men’s basketball team went 28-7 and to the NCAA tournament with 11 four-year players and two transfers. Current head coach Rob Senderoff was an assistant on that team.

This season just four players joined the Flashes straight out of high school.

Eight are transfers — three from junior colleges, five from four-year schools — including redshirt-senior leading scorer Jimmy Hall and redshirt-senior returning starter Deon Edwin. Two other players spent a year at prep school before entering college. Only six came out of high school.

Senderoff went to the University of Indiana as an assistant after his initial stint with Kent State, but later became the Flashes’ head coach in 2011. Since then, the men’s program — like many in Division I — has gone from a school developing four-year players to one that often relies on players for two years at a time.

Senderoff said a player choosing a college out of high school and staying there for four years is no longer typical.

“It’s becoming less the norm than five years ago – and certainly 10 years ago,” Senderoff said.

In five years as head coach, Senderoff has found players looking for a second opportunity to continue their college career. Some were looking for a second chance after problems at their first school, others were looking to move up from junior college, and more sought a postseason contender for their senior year.

Senderoff has had only seven players who have spent their entire college basketball careers on Kent State’s roster. Walk-on Jon Fleming is the only senior on this year’s team that will be a four-year player.

“The recruiting world is just different,” Senderoff said. “Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University) — half his roster is going to be in college for one year and then they’re going to leave (for the NBA). Another third of his roster is going to be in college for two years, and then they’re going to leave.”

For big-time programs like Duke, the University of Kentucky and the University of North Carolina, a one-year or two-year player has become the norm.

But mid-major programs rarely lose players early to the NBA. Instead, they transfer. Senderoff has found a way to use that system his advantage.

“Having someone who’s in the second half of their career, whether that be from a junior college or a four-year transfer, that’s the way is now in college basketball,” Senderoff said. “You just have to do the best job you can to get your team to mesh and to play for a purpose, which is winning.”

In the era of the one-and-done college player, Senderoff has taken a different approach in developing one of the best basketball programs in the Mid-American Conference. This season, not only did two of his best players originate at other schools, but eight of the 14 eligible players are transfer students.

The biggest name is Hall, who came to Kent State after getting in legal trouble at Hofstra University.

After researching Hall’s situation and character, Senderoff gave him a chance. Hall blossomed into one of the best players in the MAC and the face of Kent State basketball.

Former guard Derek Jackson, class of 2015, played a major role in the program’s success during his two years at Kent State.

Jackson originally committed to play for the University of Central Michigan after his sophomore year of high school. After two seasons there, his coach was fired, and Jackson decided to leave.

He took a year off basketball to focus on his academics at Cuyahoga Community College. From there the Cleveland native was recruited by Kent State, which had sought to recruit him out of high school. Jackson eventually replaced the Flashes’ former leading scorer Randall Holt, whose career ended after the 2012-13 season.

“I think I learned a lot there at Kent (State),” said Jackson, who’s currently playing overseas in Austria. “I developed as a player, and that helped me to become a professional.

Jackson started as shooting guard his first year at Kent State, then switched to point his senior season. As a senior, Jackson was named All-MAC after averaging 10.6 points and 1.7 steals per game and helping the team win a share of the regular-season MAC Championship.

His only regret, he said, is not choosing Kent State in the first place.

For other players, junior college is the option — some straight out of high school, some between colleges.

“Coming out of high school, (the recruiting process) is totally brand new to you, and there are just some things that you’re unaware of,” junior guard Kevin Zabo said. “Being recruited as a transfer, I would say, is much easier because now you know exactly how you’re going to fit within the team.

Redshirt-junior Desmond Ridenour — who played at the same high school as Jackson — said that when transferring, the recruitment process mirrored that of his high school recruitment experience, but with one major difference:

“Coming out of high school, you’re being evaluated by all types of colleges,” said Ridenour, who won’t be officially on athletic scholarship until the spring semester.

Ridenour came to Kent State in 2015, after two seasons at Duquesne University. He sat last season because of NCAA rules on transfers.

“The reason I did favor Kent State is because they were recruiting me out of high school, so I still had some information,” Ridenour said. “It was the same coaching staff that recruited me from then.”

Zabo started his college career at San Diego State University, where he saw action in 16 games before suffering a season-ending injury. He decided to transfer, but instead of going directly to another Division I school and sitting out a season, he selected Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. There, the 6’2” guard averaged seven points per game, and helped the Warriors win both a regular season and postseason championship.

“It was a good experience,” Zabo said. “It was fun for me to play basketball that year instead of sitting out.”

Senderoff said junior college can help some students.

“Sometimes you may need some academic work,” he said, “and two of the kids (who) went to junior college that came here that played at a four-year school didn’t play as much as they probably would have liked to.”

The opportunity to play immediately is especially important when a player is a graduate transfer. If a student has already graduated from a four-year school with a year remaining on his or her eligibility, he is immediately eligible to play.

Galal Cancer transferred to Kent State after he graduated from Cornell in 2015 and started master’s work in sports management and recreation.

“It was a different process in a sense that most teams looking at me knew that they only had a year,” Cancer said. “It was a little more direct as far as what the coaches were looking for.”

Cancer played three seasons at Cornell University, where he had 620 points, 245 rebounds, 241 assists and 86 steals. He started 21 games for Kent State, averaging six points.

After the season, Cancer earned the Howard and Barbara Fleischmann Endowed Athletics Scholarship for the season. He earned his master’s degree this summer. Senderoff brought in a graduate transfer in 2014 and 2015. He’s one of two grad transfers Senderoff has had as head coach; the other was Craig Brown, who transferred from Rutgers during the 2014-15 season.

“If you’re going to have somebody who’s a graduate transfer, you need to either be really young at that position or let them know what role you need them to play,” Senderoff said. “You want to make sure it’s a good fit for both you and for them.

Senderoff said that the two guys he’s seen on the team have had character that’s been tremendous, which, in his eyes “is the most important thing because they’re only on your campus playing for six or seven months.”

The transfer phenomenon goes far beyond the Kent State basketball program. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman and Jeff Borzello, who keep track of transfers, reported 850 students transferred in 2014-15 and 700 last season.

“I don’t want to call it an epidemic (yet),” Goodman said. “I think it will be an epidemic if the rule changes and kids are allowed to transfer without sitting out.”

When Goodman first started tracking transfers, the number stood around 200-250 players. But since the introduction of the graduate transfer that number has gradually grown year-after-year.

“A big part the reason it’s gone up is because of the grad transfers,” Goodman said.

According to Sports Illustrated, 20 percent of all transfers eligible to play this season will be graduate transfers, though.

Unlike Cancer, many switch schools to play for a higher-profile program.

“I think the biggest issue with it right now is the graduate transfer rule and how much it hurts mid-majors, Goodman said. “Those guys are getting plucked left and right by high majors. Any good mid-major player, who has a year left, are now being pursued by high majors.”

Senderoff has often taken a chance on players like Hall who struggled on or off the court at other schools.

Evans and former NFL tight end Antonio Gates both took the same route as players whose initial college experience, whether through their own off the court decisions or a misfortunate situation, didn’t go quite the way they planned it. Gates came to Kent State and helped the team reach the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. Evans became one of the better players at Kent State, averaging 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds as a senior.

Senderoff knows that sometimes a change of scenery is all a person needs to flourish.

“I just think that nowadays as a general statement the days of everybody staying (at one) college for five years … that’s going to happen but it doesn’t happen nearly as much as it did 10 years ago.”

Stephen Means is the sports editor, contact him at [email protected].