Gates, Smith lead the Flashes

Deanna Stevens

Senior gaurd Omni Smith goes up for a shot during the game against Ohio State Sunday at the Value City Arena in Columbus. AMANDA SOWARDS | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Steve Schirra

For the Kent State men’s basketball team, good things seem to come in fours.

Four years ago, the Flashes made national headlines after making a Cinderella-like NCAA Tournament run that ended in the Elite Eight. That team was led by four of the most notable seniors in Kent State basketball history.

A second group of four seniors guided the Flashes to another NCAA Tournament berth and a Mid-American Conference championship last season.

This season, the Flashes (2-1) have two new numbers to rely on — five and 25.

Senior guards Omni Smith and Armon Gates are the leaders of a team, whose history includes eight consecutive 20-win seasons and four NCAA berths.

Kent State coach Jim Christian said, as seniors, the team belongs to them now.

“It’s my program, but it’s their team,” Christian said. “We place a lot of responsibility on them. They are involved with a lot of decisions that go on with the program.”

Gates, returning for his fifth season after being redshirted his freshman year, said being a leader on the squad is not a new position for him.

“Last year I was a leader, but we had four other seniors,” Gates said. “The seniors even looked at me as a leader, now all the guys look at me. (They) come to me with personal questions, anything on the court or off the court.”

Gates said last season prepared him for what he would be in for this season.

“Being around those four seniors, (they) did a great job of holding us all together,” Gates said. “I learned different techniques to use in each situation: talking to the coaches, talking to the players, knowing how to talk to a player when he’s down. I learned a lot.”

Christian said even though being a senior puts an athlete in a leadership position, they won’t have a chance to prove their skills until a certain point in the season.

“Their leadership will be tested the first time we lose,” Christian said. “How do we respond to that? How do we come to practice that next day? What’s being said that night?”

Coming off his first season with Kent State after transferring from Eastfield Community College in Texas, Smith said he leads by example, but is working on becoming more vocal.

One of the examples he is setting is working on his game during the off season.

“(I’m) learning how to create for my teammates,” Smith said. “I wanted to add that to my game and I know that we have a lot of scorers.”

Even though Smith said he’s not very vocal, he did lend some of the younger players one piece of advice.

“If I see something, I try to tell them to just relax and play their game,” Smith said. “A lot of people come to the program and just try to fit in, instead of just trying to play their game and see what Coach likes about your game.”

Christian said as a senior, there is a “sense of urgency” to perform well.

“They know that the clock is ticking,” he said. “And this is a great opportunity for them – one they’re going to remember for a long time.”

But before anyone gets caught up in the two new numbers to watch, Christian said there is one number that is most important.

“I don’t think we win it with just three or four guys,” Christian said. “We played 10 guys every single night. So I think people forget that we had a lot of guys who played valuable minutes for us along the way for winning that championship.”

The Flashes are returning six letterwinners from last season’s MAC championship roster.

“There’s not a guy returning on our team that I can’t tell you a specific game that he impacted to help us win,” Christian said. “And many guys can’t say that about everybody on their roster.”

They also have three freshman whose play has been promising, Smith said.

“I saw a lot of guys trying to step up,” Smith said. “The freshmen were playing really hard, which is surprising this early in the year.”

Freshmen aren’t the only ones stepping up this season.

In the team’s exhibition 83-65 win over Northwood, junior transfer Haminn Quaintance began his season with a team-leading 20 points and 10 rebounds in 32 minutes of play.

Redshirt freshman Mike McKee and freshman Rodriguez Sherman combined for 24 points and 11 rebounds in their Kent State debut.

“We have a lot of fresh faces that are going to step up and are going to shock a lot of people,” Gates said. “So we’re not going to worry about losing the four guys. Everybody’s roles changed and new players are going to have to step in and take over, do what they have to do.”

Contact men’s basketball reporter Deanna Stevens at [email protected].