Nick Shook is a junior news major, sports columnist and the sports editor for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]
Kent State enters the Mid-American Conference Tournament in a familiar position, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.
In 2011-12, the Flashes were expected to win the conference’s regular season title and be a contender for the MAC Tournament championship. That wasn’t quite the case, as Kent State finished as the fourth-best team in the regular season and bowed out of the tournament after a semifinals loss to Akron.
The Flashes, led by reigning MAC Player of the Year Justin Greene, never seemed to find a groove and just didn’t mix well enough to succeed. They entered the tournament after a home loss to Akron on senior night, and although they defeated Western Michigan in the quarterfinals, the loss to Akron — their third of the season — was full of the same deficiencies that had derailed their season.
This season is nearly a polar opposite. The Flashes lost four seniors and three others to transfer, and took the court in 2012 with seven newcomers, four of which being freshmen. Only two of the Kent State’s three seniors started, and one — forward Chris Evans — was consistently seeing the starting lineup for the first time in his two seasons at Kent State.
Expectations were low; this was a rare “rebuilding year” at Kent State.
The non-conference portion of the season was filled with close losses and frustrating play as the new Flashes tried to figure out how to win with each other. The conference slate didn’t fare much better — Kent State opened MAC play with a home loss to Toledo, and even fell on the road to Northern Illinois, the doormat of the conference.
But the tides began to turn after the Flashes fell in another overtime contest at Ohio. A road victory at Loyola-Chicago helped Kent State get back on track, and they put all of the pieces together in an 83-81 overtime victory over Buffalo.
Chris Evans’ improbable buzzer-beater pushed the Flashes past the Bulls in a game that resembled a 10-round, heavyweight title bout. Kent State had finally outlasted an opponent and made the shot when they needed it most. The expression on the players’ faces looked as if they all had let out a collective sigh of relief. Finally.
It was a shot that, as I tweeted in the moments after the victory, could change a season.
It seems that may be the case for Kent State now, as the Flashes have since strung together three more wins, two of which coming on the road, with the last being an upset victory over regular season title-winner Akron. Kent State seems to have a little bit of swagger in their step, or maybe just confidence stemming from finally breaking through what seemed to be a brick wall of frustration to figure out how to win with each other.
Either way, much like a middle school student taking an algebra test for the first time after weeks of successful tutoring, the Flashes enter the MAC Tournament on a much higher level of confidence, and more importantly, performance.
It is not outrageous to predict a Kent State victory Thursday night. The Flashes defeated Buffalo in both of their meetings this season.
Where Kent State will again see a repeat of 2011-12 in terms of tournament seeding is on Friday, if they win Thursday night and advance to play Akron. The Flashes are 1-4 in the last five meetings between the two rivals, but despite the record, now would be the perfect time to face Akron.
The addition to the win column Friday was nice for Kent State, but the more important result gained from the victory was the belief instilled within the Flashes. They now believe they can beat Akron.
It’s common presumption among college basketball circles that the team entering the postseason riding highest, or on the hottest streak, often is the team to come out on top.
A team that believes it can beat anyone, knows how to do it and happens to be in the midst of a five-game winning streak isn’t just hot — it’s dangerous.
Kent State might be the most dangerous team in the MAC Tournament right now. Don’t be surprised to see the Flashes return to Kent late Saturday night with a conference championship and freshly cut nylon nets in hand.