A decade of excellence: 10 seasons with 20 wins

Doug Gulasy

The year was 1998. Saving Private Ryan was tops at the box office, the Titanic soundtrack was the top-selling album and the Kent State men’s basketball team was coming off a losing season.

Of those, the final event was probably the least surprising. In the previous eight seasons, the Flashes had had just one winning campaign: a 14-13 record in 1995-96.

Few people expected the Flashes to do much in 1998-99, coach Gary Waters’ third season. Nobody anticipated what would happen: a 10-year streak of 20-win seasons.

The Beginning

It may be difficult to look at a 13-17 season in 1997-98 as the beginnings of a rise to Mid-American Conference supremacy.

Kent State Director of Athletics Laing Kennedy, on the other hand, thought he saw promise. The Flashes upset Akron on the road 95-88 in the first round of the 1998 MAC Tournament, back when the early-round games were played at higher seeds’ home arenas.

“I look back at that game as a defining win for our program because prior to that, we were pretty mediocre,” Kennedy said.

Following that win, the Flashes almost knocked off Miami in the semifinals, losing 64-59.

“At that time, I remember conversations with coach Waters: ‘I think our program is starting to arrive,'” Kennedy said. “We had the quality, really outstanding players, we had really a good coaching staff and you just could sense: ‘We’re a pretty good team.'”

After the Flashes lost their first game of the season at Dayton, they won eight in a row. They lost two of their first three conference games but finished MAC play with a 13-5 record, good for second in the conference.

Then they won all three of their games in the MAC Tournament, including an upset of Miami in the championship game. The first-ever NCAA Tournament game in program history ended in a 61-54 loss to No. 20 Temple, but Kennedy wasn’t discouraged.

“You had the feeling: ‘We belong here. We’re young; our best years are ahead of us,'” Kennedy said.

When all was said and done, the Flashes finished with a 23-7 record and their first MAC championship.

The next season, Kent State went 23-8. The Flashes lost in the first round of the MAC Tournament, 69-68 to Ohio, on a buzzer-beater. Kennedy called it “one of the most heartbreaking losses that I can recall.”

But the Flashes went on to the NIT and knocked off Rutgers and Villanova before losing 81-74 at Penn State.

“You could just sense the NIT organizers wanted no part of us,” Kennedy said. “Gary played on that with our team. He said, ‘Hey, they don’t want to see us. They don’t want to even watch our practices. We have no respect.’ He really played on that.”

The next year the Flashes won 24 games and their second MAC championship in three years. They earned their first NCAA Tournament victory with a 77-73 win over Indiana then lost in the second round to Cincinnati.

But the team paid the price for that success soon afterward when Waters was hired as coach at Rutgers.

“Gary leaves our program and goes to Rutgers and you say, ‘Oh, golly, what are we going to do now?'” Kennedy said. “(It had) nothing to do with 20-win seasons. We’ve got so much momentum. We’ve got to keep it going.”

From Consistent to Elite

Kennedy knew that whoever filled the Kent State coaching vacancy would inherit a team that could win games. The Flashes had four seniors: Trevor Huffman, Andrew Mitchell, Demetric Shaw and Eric Thomas.

The problem was finding a coach who would come in and continue to build the program. Kennedy hired Stan Heath, an assistant coach at Michigan State.

“Heath came in and basically took over a veteran team of seniors: ‘The Four Mohicans,'” Kennedy said. “We had a very strong nucleus, and Stan brought a young man that really put a piece to our team that really made us very good.”

That piece was junior forward Antonio Gates, a junior-college transfer who added another dimension to the team.

“He gave the team three guys that on any given night could go for 25-plus points in one game,” said current coach Jim Christian, who was an assistant under Heath.

“When that happens, it’s very hard to match up with those guys because somewhere along the line, you had to give up something. Was it going to be Trevor, or was it going to be Andrew Mitchell or was it going to be Antonio who bailed the team out when things didn’t go well? To be a special team, you have to have that type of ability.”

But the year didn’t begin well for the Flashes.

They started 4-4, which included losses to Hofstra and at Youngstown State.

From there, though, the team caught fire. Kent State won five consecutive games, then after a one-point loss to Buffalo, the Flashes won 21 more in a row, including several close games.

“I think we always felt like there was going to be the time when it all clicked,” said Eric Haut, a current assistant who played on the 2001-02 team. “I think early in the year everybody was trying to kind of feel everybody out, between coaches and players, new guys and the guys that had been here … After those first eight games, I think it all just started to click.”

The Flashes rolled through the MAC Tournament, winning all three of their games by double digits. Then the NCAA Tournament began.

The team defeated No. 20 Oklahoma State, 69-61, in the first round. Then the Flashes beat No. 8 Alabama 71-58 to advance to the first Sweet 16 in school history. Kennedy remembers Christian predicting the Alabama win.

“I remember it was the day off between the games, and it’s like a mid-morning team breakfast,” Kennedy said. “Christian comes walking into the room with about five tapes on Alabama (looking) like he hadn’t slept, puts them on the table in front of Stan (and says), ‘We can beat this team.’ That’s what he said: ‘We can beat this team’ . I will forever remember that.”

The winning didn’t stop with Alabama. The Flashes beat Pittsburgh 78-73 in overtime to advance to the Elite Eight, overcoming a questionable call near the end of regulation.

Gates had the ball when a Pittsburgh player got a hand on it, but Gates broke the player’s hold and scored. The officials called a jump ball, but many thought it should have been a three-point play opportunity.

The Flashes won in overtime anyway.

“I give coach Heath a tremendous amount of credit for keeping his composure and letting the team keep their composure and go on and win the game,” Christian said. “A lot of coaches would have lost it there and cost their teams, but he kept his composure and got the team back on task … He deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Indiana ended the Flashes’ run in the Elite Eight with a barrage of 3-pointers, but Haut remembers it as the most exciting time in his basketball career.

“It was almost like being on an NBA team,” he said. “We always thought we were going to win. We came into a gym and we just wanted to – it’s more fun to go on the road and win than at home … We had a mentality that wherever we went and played that we were going to win that game.”

The Christian years

Heath rode the Elite Eight wave to Arkansas, who hired him as its basketball coach.

Kennedy took the advice of the 2001-02 seniors and hired Christian as the replacement.

“We had a 8 p.m. meeting right in (my) office, embarking upon the search,” Kennedy said. “They just made a very compelling statement on behalf of Jim Christian. They said, ‘You’ve watched our practices. You’ve seen his energy. You’ve seen his enthusiasm. You see the scout team blowing us off the court in scrimmages, and that’s because of coach Christian. You do not have to go very far to find your next coach.'”

Christian has kept the 20-win season streak going for six years now, and his first four teams qualified for postseason play. The 2005-06 team won the MAC Tournament.

“First of all, I’ve been fortunate enough to have great staffs here. They’re guys who took a lot of pride in helping this team,” Christian said. “Then we’ve gone out and added players with the character and selflessness that we’ve wanted here, that have bought into winning. It’s just something that keeps spreading.”

Nine with nine

Nine teams entered the 2007-08 season with at least nine consecutive seasons of 20 wins or more. Here’s how those nine teams have fared this season:

Arizona: 15-8

Creighton: 17-7

Duke: 22-1

Florida: 19-6

Gonzaga: 19-6

Kansas: 23-2

Kent State: 20-5

Kentucky: 12-10

Syracuse: 16-9

Junior forward Isaac Knight gave Christian credit for keeping the winning going as well.

“We’ve got a great coach,” Knight said. “He knows how to get the job done with scouting reports (and) scouting other teams. We practice hard every day to be ready for the games. We’ve just got a tough coach who expects the best out of us.”

If there are two qualities a Christian-coached team has, they are senior leadership and a tough defense.

“Leadership is key,” junior forward Julian Sullinger said. “My freshman year I had Jay Youngblood and (DeAndre) Haynes, (and) they led us. (My) second year (we had) Omni (Smith) and Armon (Gates), and now we’ve got Mike (Scott) and (Haminn Quaintance). Those three years, all three of them, they showed great times of leadership.”

The Streak: Season-by-Season, with leading scorer

1998-99: 23-7 (13-5 Mid-American Conference) – John Whorton (12.8 points per game)

1999-2000: 23-8 (13-5) – Trevor Huffman (13.1 ppg)

2000-01: 24-10 (13-5) – Trevor Huffman (16.8 ppg)

2001-02: 30-6 (17-1) – Trevor Huffman (16 ppg)

2002-03: 22-9 (12-6) – Antonio Gates (20.6 ppg)

2003-04: 22-9 (13-5) – John Edwards (13.2 ppg)

2004-05: 20-13 (11-7) – Jason Edwin (12.2 ppg)

2005-06: 25-8 (15-3) – Jay Youngblood (14.6 ppg)

2006-07: 21-11 (12-4) – Omni Smith (13.9 ppg)

2007-08: 20-5 (9-2) – Al Fisher (13.5 ppg)

The Flashes seem to rank near the top of the MAC year in and year out in defense, and this year is no different. They rank second in the MAC in scoring defense.

“Everybody here who plays here knows that defense is what keeps you in the game,” Christian said. “Offense can win it for you, but defense keeps you in it and gives you an opportunity to (win). Every team has to have an identity, and I think over the stretch of 10 years and six since I’ve been here, (defense has) been our identity.”

The Future

Twenty wins has never been the only goal for the Kent State program.

“Our goal is to be postseason and be a national program,” Kennedy said. “But then you pause, like this morning and you look at the programs that have had 10 years of 20 wins … The list is getting a little shorter, but those that are still on the list are dominating programs.”

Still, 20 wins is a goal of the team, which begs the question of when the streak will end.

“It’s not going to fall on us,” Quaintance said. “That was mine and Mike Scott’s thing: ‘We’re not going to let it fall on us; we’re not going to let the program down.’ I seriously doubt the up-and-coming seniors … (are) going to let it fall on them. And if they try to, they’re going to have to fight coach Christian the whole way there. I don’t think they want to do that.”

CHECK OUT the winning streak timeline.

Contact sports reporter Doug Gulasy

at [email protected].