Games against Xavier, UNC highlight tough schedule

Joe Harrington

It’s no secret that the Kent State men’s basketball team looks impressive on paper this season. They have four starters returning, including senior forward Mike Scott. Coach Jim Christian also returns, and has won 20 or more games in each of the six seasons he’s been at Kent State.

But all the hype will be wasted if Kent State doesn’t take its tough schedule seriously. If there was ever a Mid-American Conference basketball team that could make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, it may be the Flashes.

“I think it’s a challenging schedule,” Christian said. “We try every year to play teams to put us in the best position to prepare us for the tough MAC environment.”

This season is arguably the toughest schedule Christian has had to coach against. The first big test, Xavier, almost upset National Champion runner-up Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. Xavier returns a lot of key players and should be a tough test for Kent State, Christian said.

Corpus Christi A&M, who went to the tournament last season, travels to the M.A.C. Center Jan. 9.

Gary Watters, the man who started the 20-win streak as the coach of the Flashes before leaving for Rutgers in 2001 will make his return to Kent State as the Cleveland State Vikings visit on Dec. 29.

Then of course, there are bigger names on the schedule

Rick Majerus and his St. Louis squad will be here Nov. 28. Two games later, George Mason and Jim Larranaga, still buzzing after their shocking Final Four trip in 2006, will be here Dec. 8.

It will be the first time that two former Final Four coaches will be coming to the M.A.C. Center.

The Flashes biggest tests will come Nov. 24 and Jan. 2.

The Flashes play the winner of the Illinois State-Indiana game in the Chicago Invitational Tournament. Indiana is ranked No.9 in the preseason AP Top 25. Christian looks forward to the preseason tournament.

“You want to get an opportunity to play great teams and give yourself a chance to make a name for yourself,” Christian said.

Every year Kent State schedules at least one marquee game that is nationally televised. They aim high. Last season it was at Duke, the year before, at Syracuse. This year, it doesn’t get much tougher than the Associated Press’s top team in the nation, the North Carolina Tar Heels.

“It’s as good as it gets right there,” Christian said.

The Tar Heels are led by junior Tyler Hansbrough, who will be trying to make his second straight All-American team. The Tar Heels are coached by Roy Williams, who won his first National Championship in 2005 after making a name for himself at Kansas.

Kent State Director of Athletics Laing Kennedy said the contract negotiations with North Carolina started a year and a half ago when North Carolina invited the Flashes to play them.

“It’s just not a matter of ‘Hey we’ll come,’ no, you have to be invited, which means they have respect for you,” Kennedy said.

If Kent State survives the non-conference schedule, the Flashes won’t have time to rest. The MAC always presents a tough challenge from any of its 12 teams.

“Everything we do is to prepare ourselves for our league and getting ready to play (the MAC tournament),” Christian said.

Kennedy said the 2007 schedule is the best Kent State has ever had since he’s been the Director of Athletics.

Contact sports reporter Joe Harrington at [email protected].