Kent State’s nine-year run built on defense

Chris Gates

This season, the 2007-2008 Kent State men’s basketball team will try to lay claim to a feat few schools have accomplished: 10 straight seasons of 20 wins or more.

As it has been since coach Jim Christian arrived, defense will lead the way as the staple of the Flashes’ game plan.

“I think that’s how you win in our league,” Christian said. “You win on the defensive end of the floor by playing tough, hard-nosed basketball.

“All the good programs in the country have something to hang their hat on,” he added. “For us, (defense) is what it is.”

Hard-nosed basketball has been a trademark of Christian’s teams. Every year the Flashes play deep into their bench, enabling fresh legs and team speed on defense. This also can lead to more experience for the roster, and a greater knowledge of game situations for the entire squad.

“They all know they’re going to play,” Christian said. “They come here and know it’s going to be an unbelievable amount of competition. It’s going to all be about team first. It’s got nothing to do with individuals. They know that when they walk in the door here.”

This attitude is the mentality the program is based around. Young players are attracted to Kent State because they know they can get a chance to play and prove themselves almost immediately.

“We try to build it that way,” Christian said. “They all know if they work hard they’re going to get their opportunity to play.”

The Flashes have arguably the most anticipated season ahead of them since the team that reached the Elite Eight in 2001-2002. Christian was an assistant to former coach Stan Heath at the time, and explained that this year’s team has a lot to prove before being mentioned in the same breath as that group.

“That team was, without question, one of the best mid-major teams to ever play,” Christian said. “I don’t know if we have that much experience and talent together. That team will forever be the team that every Kent State team that ever hits the floor here will be compared to.

“Until this team goes out and plays and accomplishes things that are close to that, it’s hard to compare any team to that one,” he added.

The 2001-2002 Flashes featured many record setters, combined to reach the Elite Eight.

The squad had the school’s all-time leading scorer in Trevor Huffman, the fifth all-time leading scorer in Andrew Mitchell, the only player to ever win the MAC defensive player of the year twice in Demetric Shaw and an all-American in Antonio Gates.

This year, the records are not all there, but the team chemistry appears to be.

“These guys get along very well,” Christian said. “On the floor they have a lot of fun together, and off the floor I think they get along very well. Those things help, without question.”

Christian, currently second in wins in Kent State history, has been with the Flashes for seven years and has built upon what he started as an assistant. With a career record of 110 wins and 51 losses, Christian is well on pace to become the most successful head coach in Kent State basketball history.

Under his lead, Kent State has featured the second- and fourth-highest scoring teams in Kent State basketball history, as well registering the second most wins, 25, in a season in 2005-2006. Christian won Mid-American Conference coach of the year in 2006.

Coming in to the 2007-2008 campaign, Kent State has been picked as the pre-season favorite to win the MAC East Division. Also, the Flashes have been ranked 15th in the preseason Mid-Major Top 25.

Christian and the Flashes don’t look at their rankings as a measuring stick though. They have only one goal in mind: a MAC Championship.

“We honestly don’t care about any of that,” Christian said. “There’s only one poll that counts, and that’s who is standing on the floor at the Q at the end of the MAC Tournament. That will determine how your year went.”

Kent State has won the MAC East three times with Christian as coach and has won the MAC Tournament once in 2005-2006.

“That’s what we play for,” Christian said. “Anything less than a tournament berth any year is a disappointment. We are going to do everything we can to try and put ourselves in position to win the MAC Championship and play in the tournament.”

Contact sports reporter Chris Gates at [email protected].