Omaha, here they come

Doug Gulasy

Flashes hope prior experience will come in handy in Tournament

It’s been a season of firsts for the Kent State men’s basketball team. The Flashes (28-6) beat a nationally ranked team in the regular season for the first time and received their first-ever regular season national ranking.

But as the team heads toward the NCAA Tournament, some players will have seconds, as in their second trip to the tournament.

“It’s great to be a senior in this position, to know that you’re going out on top of the conference,” said forward Mike Scott, who was a sophomore when the Flashes made their last NCAA appearance in 2006. “(You) just know that you have the opportunity to do some more damage and add some more to the team’s resume.”

The 2006 team had just one player who had NCAA Tournament experience, forward Nate Gerwig. The Flashes lost 79-64 to Pittsburgh in the first round.

“We ran into Pittsburgh and I don’t think we were confident going into that game,” Scott said. “I think we were shellshocked, just like, ‘Man, this is Pittsburgh.’ They’re a very, very good team.

“I think going into this game we have confidence that we can play with any team in the country, regardless of who they are. Whether it was Kansas, Duke, UNLV — whoever it may be that we run into, I think we have the confidence to play hard and realize that we can win the game.”

Besides Scott, this season’s team has three other players with NCAA Tournament experience: juniors Jordan Mincy, Isaac Knight and Julian Sullinger, who were freshmen in 2006. Kent State coach Jim Christian believes that experience will help his team.

“It can get overwhelming if you’re not mentally prepared to face the challenges,” Christian said after the Flashes beat Akron Saturday in the Mid-American Conference Tournament final.

“From this point on, you’re playing unbelievably good basketball teams that really can expose things you don’t do well. Again, having guys who have been through that and who understand a little bit, that’s going to help a little better.”

The Flashes may need that experience in their tournament opener, Thursday at 2:55 p.m. in Omaha, Neb, because their opponent, UNLV (26-7), has experience too.

Last season the Rebels advanced to the Sweet 16 after defeating Georgia Tech and Wisconsin in the first two rounds.

“(They’re) a team very similar to ours,” Christian said. “They’re an outstanding defensive team, holding teams to right around 40 percent (shooting) for the year. (They) have two very, very good guards, almost four double-figure scorers and you know they’re going to be well-prepared.”

When the Flashes lost to Pittsburgh two years ago, it was mainly because the Panthers caused matchup problems with 7-foot center Aaron Gray.

The Rebels don’t have a 7-foot player, but they can cause problems with other players. Guard Wink Adams leads them with 16.6 points per game and is shooting 36.1 percent from 3-point range. As a team, UNLV averages 7.7 3-pointers a game.

In recent games, the Flashes’ perimeter defense has been strong. In the past five games, the Flashes have held opponents to 13-of-72 (18.1 percent) shooting from behind the arc.

“We want to take teams out of the things that they do,” junior guard Al Fisher said. “We don’t want to let them come down and run their sets and plays that they want to run, especially 3-point shooting teams. We want to get them out, pressure them and have them like a little scared to run things.

“We just try to get out there, pressure the ball and make them change things that they usually do.”

Scott has talked all season about the goals the team has kept. With a few, including winning the MAC, accomplished, winning their NCAA Tournament game becomes the next goal.

Scott said as much after Saturday’s game, receiving a response of “Good answer” from Christian.

And his tournament experience and that of his teammates could be what helps the team accomplish that goal.

“I’m really looking forward to the challenge to play in (the tournament) again,” Scott said. “After having the experience my sophomore year, I think it’s definitely going to help the team out. Being here once before, it wa great, and being here again as a senior, it’s wonderful. But we definitely have more to do, more goals to accomplish.”

Contact sports reporter Doug Gulasy at [email protected]