A different drive to win


Redshirt senior Derek Jackson takes a second to recover as the Miami RedHawks get ready for another play Saturday, Feb. 7. The Flashes went on to win against Miami in the final 30 seconds of the game, 61-60.

Richie Mulhall

Around this time last year, the Kent State men’s basketball team was struggling to keep its head above water.

After roaring out of the gates to a sizzling 9-2 start, the Flashes went cold through the second half of their season — the Mid-American Conference (MAC) games and arguably most important portion of the season. The wheels of a promising season completely fell off, as Kent State went on a three-game skid.

The team posted an 7-14 losing record down the stretch, and the Miami RedHawks handed the Flashes the final blow of the 2013-2014 campaign, defeating Kent State 71-64 in the opening round of the MAC Tournament, slamming the lid on a crushing season. The team finished 16-16 overall.

Flash-forward to this year, and it’s a different feel this time around.

This season, Kent State (18-8, 9-4 MAC) is back in the hunt, vying for the coveted spot atop the MAC East Division standings. They are amidst a group of hungry teams all fighting for a No. 1 seed for the MAC Tournament in March.

Unlike last year, the Flashes are maintaining their winning ways and proving themselves to those who overlooked them during the preseason poll back in September.

What does coach Rob Senderoff and company attribute their newfound success to?

A lot of things, but for starters, maturity deserves some recognition.

Growing pains

Senderoff credited the team’s improved record at this point in the season — compared to this time last year — to more experience and growth as a team.

There’s a higher level of team unity and chemistry, a mutual respect between young and old players that has been driving the team to stay on track, junior forward Chris Ortiz said.

Some people underestimate how much difference a year can make in an athlete’s progression, but that was all it took to mold players like Ortiz and junior center Khaliq Spicer into full-time starters.

“We were able to play a lot (last year) because we were losing games, unfortunately, and we gained some experience, and now from sitting and watching for two years…even if I’m not playing I’m still trying to learn,” Ortiz said. “I saw what it took to win last year, and we obviously didn’t have what it took, so basically it’s just pushing harder.”

Senderoff said there has obviously been a learning curve for younger players like Ortiz and Spicer, who weren’t broken in to collegiate-level basketball just yet.

“I think last year a lot of these guys were in new roles and a lot of guys probably weren’t used to that success in some degree,” Senderoff said. “I think this year the three seniors (guards Devareaux Manley, Derek Jackson and Kris Brewer) played big roles, and then Khaliq and Ortiz who are starters now were sophomores last year. I think they were just sort of happy to play, and now they’re doing a lot of the little things to help us win.”

Ortiz said his learning experience motivates him to play better this time around.

“We’re learning from it, we know what we’re capable of…and we don’t want to let this slip away,” Ortiz said. “Our seniors didn’t want to go out like last year’s seniors did. Guys like me and Khaliq who will be seniors who’ve been in the program for three years know how important a senior season is, and we don’t want our seniors to go out like that.”

Behind redshirt sophomore forward Jimmy Hall, the trio of senior guards leads the team in scoring. Manley averages 13.2 points per game, Brewer averages 10.7 points per game and Jackson averages 9.9 points per game.

To Jackson, being consistent and being tough has made all the difference in the team’s successful turnaround.

“Coach has been staying on us about playing hard against the good teams, but the teams we’re supposed to beat, we don’t play as hard so we’re just trying to stay consistent, play tough and take it one game at a time,” Jackson said.

Senior leadership has also played a big role in the team’s development and improvement.

“We think we have really good senior leadership this year, and that’s not to say that we did anything last year, but as you know one of the seniors got kicked off the team around this time in Melvin (Tabb), so I think we have good senior leadership, and that’s evident in how they play when things get back,” Senderoff said. “We didn’t play very well against Akron, but they were able to regroup and play very well at Toledo, and that to me is a sign of good leadership by the seniors.”

Like Senderoff, Ortiz said the team’s success started with better senior leadership, which has shown in practice and during games.

“There hasn’t been one day where they let anybody slide,” Ortiz said. “That’s the difference from last year, we can get on each other, and guys won’t feel (down on themselves). It’s just criticism because we want to win.”

Playing with (and without) Hall

One of the main keys to Kent State’s success has been the addition of Hall, who transferred to Kent State from Hofstra University to provide the Flashes with a dominant inside presence they lacked last season.

Hall entered the season as the MAC Preseason Newcomer of the Year and proved to be the X-factor post player the team was looking for, leading the team in scoring (15.1 points per game) and rebounding (7.5 rebounds per game).

With Hall taking charge underneath the rim, Kent State suddenly evolved from a shoot-first team to a defensive, post-up squad. A team that averaged 33.6 rebounds just one year earlier now averages 34.7 boards per game and ranks third in the MAC in scoring defense, holding opponents to 61.1 points per game — a major upgrade compared to last year’s surrender of 68.4 points per game.

“I think this year our defense has significantly improved to where we don’t have to score to win,” Senderoff said. “We can beat teams by defending at a high level too, which last year we had a difficult time doing, and this year we seem to be better in every aspect defensively — rebounding, challenging shots at the rim, guarding the basketball. I think our guys have really bought into the defensive side of the ball.”

Hall’s play in the paint also helped spread the floor offensively, opening up more shots for guards who no longer settled for three-point shots.

Hall certainly had an immediate effect as one of the newest Flashes, but following Kent’s loss to Buffalo on Jan. 30, he fell ill with mononucleosis, leaving many to wonder if the Flashes would be able to sustain their success with Hall sidelined.

Prior to Hall’s absence, Kent State was riding a six-game winning streak. With Hall out, Kent State tried to avoid panic mode and so far has answered the challenge with an aggressive attitude and positive spirit.

“When you’re winning, it’s easier to come to work with a positive attitude each day, but at the end of the day when we had a couple of games where we lost, guys kept working hard,” Senderoff said. “We’ve got …(five) more games left, and we need to continue to try to get better each day in practice and then have those show through in the games.

Despite Hall’s noticeable absence, the team will stick to the same game plan and won’t try to alter its identity to overcompensate for the missing link.

“(We’ve) just got to play harder,” Ortiz said. “Jimmy’s a great player. It’s unfortunate that he’s missing these games, but at the same time, the world isn’t going to stop. We still got to play these games. Without Jimmy, somebody just has to do a little bit more. No game plans have changed.”

So far the team is 3-2 without Hall, picking up its most recent win Wednesday night against Ball State, 58-53.

“The three guards know they need to shoot a little bit more and score a little bit more,” Senderoff said. “The key is making sure that our shot selection remains good and that we continue to attack and get to the free throw line and not just settle for jumpers.”

In Hall’s absence, it seems that different players step up to fill the void. Ortiz, Spicer, Brewer, Manley and Jackson have all contributed to the mix in some capacity, and even guys like graduate student forward Craig Brown and sophomore forward Marquiez Lawrence have provided productive energy and quality minutes off the bench.

“That’s the good thing about our team,” Senderoff said. “Even in Jimmy’s absence, Ortiz has stepped up in certain games, Khaliq had 12 rebounds and then last game (against Toledo) Craig (Brown) came off the bench and had six points. Our three guards have been good all year, so I just think that overall we’ve had a lot of different guys play well when we need guys to step up, and it’s been really more a team effort. There have been important contributions made from everyone.”

The senior guards are used to taking charge, especially because they were the top three scorers last season. The way Jackson sees it, they’ve played without him before, so they can do it again.

“We really had to step our game up,” Jackson said. “We understand that we have to do way more than we normally do. We still have to play the game even if he’s here or not.”

Hall status update

In regard to Hall’s tentative timetable of return, Senderoff said Hall is still recovering and expects him to return sooner rather than later.

Hall went through a workout a few days ago, saw the doctor Monday and will hopefully be able to do an individual workout soon, Senderoff said.

His status will be day-to-day at this point, and an estimated time of return is still unknown.

Contact Richie Mulhall at [email protected].