Men’s basketball team primed, poised for better season

Kent State defense awaits the outcome of a shot taken by the Bulls’ in their losing game against Buffalo, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, in the M.A.C.C. The final score was 78-69.

Richie Mulhall

To some “mid-major” Division I basketball teams, finishing a long 32-game season with a .500 record is considered “good.”

These programs celebrate breaking even with a mediocre .500 record, but not Kent State.

Given the program’s rich basketball history including five regular season titles, five Mid-American Conference Tournament Championships and an Elite Eight Appearance back in 2002, the Flashes expect more than just “good.”

“Here we’re hoping for more,” Kent State men’s basketball coach Rob Senderoff said. “For us, that was disappointing.”

The Flashes finished the 2013-2014 campaign with a 16-16 record, losing the last three games of the season, one of which was a Mid-American Conference Tournament game against Miami.

After firing out of the gates and opening up the season with an early 9-2 record, the Flashes closed out the last 21 games with a 7-14 record and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Redhawks. It was the first time since the 1997-1998 season that the Flashes failed to produce at least 19 wins.

Not exactly the season everyone anticipated.

“Our league is difficult and I think there’s a lot of balance and parity in our conference, so hopefully we’ll finish the season better than we finished it last year,” Senderoff said.

The Flashes suffered from a number of deficiencies that derailed their season, including lack of size, weak inside presence in the post and inconsistencies.

Some of these underlying issues that plagued Kent State have since been resolved, but they still beg the question: Why will this season be any different from the last?

For starters, the team is different. The dynamic of the team has changed, enriched by new experience, new faces and a whole new mindset.

Kent State, predicted to finish third in the Mid-American Conference East Division, according to the 2014-2015 MAC Men’s Basketball Preseason Poll, is ready for a fresh start and prepared to make a statement in MAC. Senderoff and his team strongly believe they have the right tools to succeed and leave last year’s 16-16 record behind.


Meet the team. Photos by Rachel LeGoubin, Melanie Nesteruk and Jenna Watson. Graphic by Ryan Dunn

Returning experience

To learn from past mistakes and eclipse shortcomings with success, it takes experience, an asset many teams can’t afford come graduation time.

Such is not the case for Kent State, though, which returns the most experienced backcourt in the MAC.

Entering his fourth season as head coach, Senderoff (58-42) returns three starters and seven letterwinners from last season’s team. Led by All-MAC honorable mention guard Kris Brewer, the Flashes also bring back their top three scorers from the previous year for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.

“All of our parameter guys are returning as our three leading scorers, and we should have a lot of experience in the backcourt,” Senderoff said. “When games are tight, you want to have experienced guards, and we have that.”

Team Predictions

East Division — Predicted Order of Finish
1. Akron – 117 points (17)
2. Ohio – 92 points (2)
3. Kent State – 66 points
4. Buffalo – 58 points
5. Bowling Green – 52 points (1)
6. Miami – 35 points
(First-place votes in parentheses)

West Division — Predicted Order of Finish
1. Toledo – 118 points (18)
2. Western Michigan – 94 points (1)
3. Eastern Michigan – 68 points
4. Northern Illinois – 63 points
5. Central Michigan – 49 points (1)
6. Ball State – 28 points

Tournament Champion:
Toledo (15), Akron (1), Bowling Green (1), Central Michigan (1), Ohio (1), Western Michigan (1)

Player Predictions

East Division — Preseason All-MAC Team
Demetrius Treadwell, Sr., F, Akron Maurice Ndour, Sr., F, Ohio Kris Brewer, Sr., G, Kent State Richaun Holmes, Sr., F, Bowling Green Will Regan, Sr., F,

Buffalo West Division — Preseason All-MAC Team
David Brown, Grad., G, Western Michigan Karrington Ward, Sr., F, Eastern Michigan Julius Borwn, Sr., G, Toledo Chris Fowler, Jr., G, Central Michigan Justin Drummond, Sr., G/F, Toledo

Arguably the most-watched guard in Kent State’s backcourt will be Brewer, who just a few weeks ago was named to the five-player MAC Preseason All-MAC Team, as voted on by all the coaches in the conference.

A 6-foot-3-inch senior from Memphis, Brewer started 27 games last year and led the team in both the points and the assists, averaging 11.8 points per game and 2.8 assists per game.

Brewer’s main problem last season, though, was a common enemy among most players: consistency.

“To stay consistent, you have to go in the gym, so we’ve been in the gym almost every night, me and the senior leaders,” Brewer said.

Two other marquee guards who will play key roles in Kent State’s backcourt behind Brewer are redshirt senior Derek Jackson, who averaged 10.7 points per game, and senior Devareaux Manley, who led the team in threes last year with 73.

Jackson sustained a mild concussion last week but has been cleared to play in this Saturday’s first game of the season.

New faces

In addition to the seasoned veterans leading the way for the Flashes, Kent State will also get a good glimpse of a talented supporting cast of newcomers, including redshirt sophomore MAC Preseason Newcomer of the Year Jimmy Hall.

Hall transferred to Kent State from Hofstra last year after getting kicked out following an arrest on burglary charges. He was forced to sit out the 2013-2014 season and has three years of eligibility remaining.

Given Hall’s track record, why did Senderoff recruit him?

Hall’s repertoire – including his athletic build and imposing post-up ability – impressed Senderoff.

“He’s a low-post scorer, he’s a skilled frontcourt guy and I think he has an opportunity to be really good,” Senderoff said.

Many fans will be excited to finally see redshirt senior Blake Vedder in action.

Vedder, who stands at 7 feet 4 inches, transferred to Kent State last year from Indiana, Pennsylvania, and sat out the 2013-2014 season. He had previously spent two seasons at Rhode Island and appeared in 16 games for the Rams.

As the tallest player in MAC history, Vedder has a chance to impact the game defensively despite limited minutes. He’s not expected to be an offensive juggernaut by any means but provide defensive stability.

“He’s got to maintain focus over full practice periods and full game periods, and then hopefully he can help us in some capacity,” Senderoff said.

Graduate student Craig Brown joins the Flashes after averaging 3.6 points and 2.5 rebounds per game at Rutgers last season. Brown earned his undergraduate degree from Rutgers in August and is enrolled in graduate school at Kent State.

Men’s Basketball Quick Facts

Head Coach: Rob Senderoff, 58-42, entering his fourth season as head coach.

Assistant Coaches: Eric Haut, Bobby Steinburg, DeAndre Haynes.

2013-14 Record: 16-16

2013-14 Conference Record: 7-11

2013-14 Home Record: 11-7

2013-14 Away Record: 5-9

Championships: MAC East regular season (2002-2004, 2006, 2008, 2010-2011), MAC Tournament (2001-2002, 2006, 2008) NCAA Elite 8 (2002).

Key Returnees: Kris Brewer (senior), Derek Jackson (redshirt senior), Devareaux Manley (senior), Kellon Thomas (junior), Khaliq Spicer (junior), Chris Ortiz (junior).

Key Losses: Mark Henniger, Darren Goodson.

Key Additions: Blake Vedder (redshirt senior), Xavier Pollard (senior), Craig Brown (graduate student), Jimmy Hall (redshirt sophomore), Raasean Davis (freshman), Gary Akbar (junior).

Strengths: Three-point shooting, the guard position, experience, home games.

Weaknesses: Inconsistency, size, inside/paint presence, away games.

Size matters

No matter how skilled a team’s backcourt is, size matters in the MAC.

Last season, 6-foot-7 power forward and 2014 MAC Player of the Year Javon McCrea anchored the University at Buffalo’s roster and carried the Bulls deep into the MAC Tournament, averaging 18.5 points per game and 9.9 rebounds per game – second in the league in both categories.

Luckily for the Flashes, size is on their side.

Sure, Kent State loses forwards Mark Henniger and Darren Goodson, the team’s top rebounding tandem last season, but it certainly makes up for lost height.

Junior forwards Khaliq Spicer and Chris Ortiz, who stand at 6 feet 9 inches and 6 feet 8 inches, respectively, will lead the Flashes’ front court.

Spicer only started nine games last season but he ranked third on the team in rebounds with 120.

One goal Spicer hopes his frontcourt will accomplish this year is better rebounding efficiency.

Last year opponents outrebounded the Flashes in the rebounds-per-game category, 34.5-33.6.

“We have a lot more size this year, so our main goal is to rebound and defend,” Spicer said.

More assertive command of the paint will also open up shots and create scoring opportunities for the guards, Brewer said.

“It’s going to be kind of a 50-50, 3-ball, post game,” Brewer said. “The size helps a lot so we can throw it in there, but the threes are going to come.”

Although the Flashes relied heavily on the three-ball last season, Spicer said offensive strategy has changed.

“I feel like we’re going to go inside more this year because our postmen have been working more on the inside,” Spicer said.

A new offensive scheme

Senderoff said he believes the team will have a greater offensive balance. Kent State, a team well-known for its three-point shooting, became a squad that lived by the three and died by the three.

As a team, the Flashes averaged almost 21 three-point shot attempts per game, a steep amount compared to their opponents who only averaged about 17 three-point shot attempts per game.

Senderoff said he hopes a stronger interior presence will mitigate the number of threes taken.

“Last year we shot a lot of threes,” Senderoff said. “When we made them we were good, and when we didn’t, we didn’t have much of a chance to win. Hopefully there’ll be game this year when we don’t shoot the very ball well but we still can win because we get to the free-throw line and get a lot of offensive rebounds and get a lot of second-chance points.”

Guys like Spicer, Ortiz, Davis and Hall can help make this vision possible. Their size advantage will allow for more post-game matchups as opposed to throwing up 20-plus Hail Marys per game and praying for the best.

“We should be a good rebounding team, we should be a team that gets to the foul line a lot, we should be able to play inside-out this year much more than we were able to last year just because of the size that we have,” Senderoff said.

Senderoff said he already feels more comfortable up front this season compared to last because of the healthy mix of new and veteran players on the squad.

Kent State returns Spicer, Ortiz and sophomore Marquiez Lawrence, but also welcomes the fresh additions of Hall, junior Marvin Jones and 6-foot-8-inch freshman Raasean Davis to the band of big men as well.

Having a versatile, malleable roster helps the coaching staff experiment with a number of different player combinations on the court at any given time during a game.

Getting ready for game day

2014-2015 Key Matchups

  • • @ Youngstown State: Saturday, Nov. 15
  • Men Against Breast Cancer Classic: Nov. 18, 21, 22 and 23
  • @University of Kansas: Tuesday, Dec. 30
  • vs. Bowling Green: Wednesday, Jan. 7
  • @ University of Akron: Tuesday, Feb. 10
  • vs. University of Akron: Friday, March 6

Kent State will kick off the 2014-2015 season on the road against Youngstown State University. Senderoff doesn’t have a starting lineup in mind yet, and because starting lineups fluctuate so often over the course of a long season, only time will tell who the starters will be.

“It’s certainly not as important to me who starts as much as who’s on the floor during crunch time, and some of that will be dependent on how guys are playing during the game because I do think we have eight guys that have practiced well enough to deserve to start,” Senderoff said.

Regardless of who gets the nod to start in the Flashes’ upcoming game this weekend, one thing is certain: Just because the team might be better doesn’t mean the season gets any easier.

The MAC’s competition will be just as stiff as it is every year. Even the doormat of the conference poses a threat.

“There’s not a night off, wherein some leagues you play the bottom of the league, you don’t have to play very well, and you can still win,” Senderoff said.

It doesn’t work that way in the MAC.

“If you don’t bring it, you’re going to lose, regardless of who you play,” Senderoff said.

Practice has been held and training is complete. All that’s left to do is play the game.

Saturday’s tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

Contact Richie Mulhall at [email protected].