Kent State looks for another upset

Sean Joseph

The last time the Kent State men’s basketball team played Pittsburgh, it was the biggest victory in team history.

In the 2002 Sweet Sixteen, the No. 10 seeded Flashes upset the No. 3 seeded Panthers in overtime and advanced to the Elite Eight. That was the last NCAA Tournament victory posted by Kent State. The two teams will face-off again at 7:10 p.m. Friday at The Palace at Auburn Hills in the first round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Tournament.

Pitt (24-7, 10-6 Big East) enters its fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament and was picked as the No. 5 seed in the Oakland Bracket after losing a close game to Syracuse in the Big East Championship. Prior to that game, the Panthers defeated the No. 1 seed in the Minneapolis bracket, Villanova, 68-54 in the conference semifinal game.

“The first thing I thought (after hearing of the matchup), was that I knew we would get a great team. I’m just excited for my team to get a chance to play,” Kent State coach Jim Christian said. “But obviously there are other teams that we would rather play.”

Pitt is led by senior guard Carl Krause and junior center Aaron Gray, who both received All-Big East Tournament honors. Gray broke the Big East

Tournament record for rebounds with 47, averaging 11.8 per game.

The 7-foot, 270 pound Gray averaged 10.6 rebounds per game this season, which more than doubles Kent State’s leading rebounders averages – senior forward Kevin Warzynski leads with 5.1 rebounds per game and sophomore Mike Scott has 4.9.

The Panthers are led in scoring by the 6-foot-2 Krauser, who averages 15 points per game, which is comparable to the Flashes 6-foot-5 senior guard Jay Youngblood who averages 14.7.

However Krause and Gray are Pittsburgh’s only players who average more than 10 points per game, while Kent State has three in Warzynski, Youngblood and senior guard DeAndre Haynes.

“Depth is Kent State’s biggest strength,” Christian said. “For us to win we need to have different guys step up.”

After having four players score in double digits Friday and Saturday night and five on Thursday night in the Mid-American Conference Tournament, the Flashes are 15-0 this season when at least four players score more than 10 points.

Christian, who was an assistant coach at Pitt from 1996 to 1999, described the Panthers as a well-rounded, old-fashioned team. Their strengths include rebounding on both ends of the court, penetrating the paint on the dribbling and scoring inside. Christian said he thought they were the best inside-passing teams in the nation.

Size is something Christian said his team was worried about. The Panthers listed six players over 6-foot-6 on their roster, while the Flashes have four active players over that height.

But Christian said senior center Nate Gerwig and Warzynski can help out around the basket like they have done all season.

“Gerwig is the warrior of our team,” Christian said of the only player on Kent State’s roster with NCAA Tournament experience, who measures in at 6-foot-9. “He’s probably the toughest guy I’ve ever had come through Kent State and he knows how to compete out there.”

Even though Kent State is a No. 12 seed team from a mid-major conference and Pitt has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen three of the last four years, Christian said he does not think they will be overlooked. But he said they can pull off the upset with smart coaching and determined athletes.

“Coach (Jamie) Dixon always does a great job getting his team prepared for the tournament,” Christian said. “But we have an edge preparing our guys because they played a lot more games on TV that we can watch tape of.”

Contact men’s basketball reporter Sean Joseph at [email protected]