Flashes start semester with four game streak

Sean Joseph

While some students reclined on the couch watching “Dr. Phil” or “SportsCenter” and grew tired of their family during winter break, the Kent State men’s basketball team cherished its three days off.

The Flashes (10-5, 4-0 Mid-American Conference) spent most of their break practicing and preparing for the seven games they played after the rest of the student body left campus.

The team is not too impressed with its overall record, but is thrilled about its success against MAC opponents so far, said seniors DeAndre Haynes and Jay Youngblood.

And yes, they still believe they can compete for the MAC Championship and a NCAA tournament berth.

Kent State coach Jim Christian said the best performance his team has had all season was the 76-68 home victory over Toledo Jan. 4 to open up conference play.

“Coming into that game we had lost two in a row, we were opening our MAC season, and there wasn’t a big crowd, but the team had their mind set to compete, and it was a turning point in our season,” Christian said.

But before the season’s turning point came the most disappointing game they played over break on Dec. 30 in their 78-66 loss at Syracuse, Christian said.

“We had a lot of opportunities in that game we just didn’t seize,” Christian said. “I don’t think at that point we thought we were a great team – but now we have that mind-set.”

Just before Christmas, the Flashes ventured to California expecting to win both games in the St. Mary’s Holiday Classic, and even though they were disappointed when they lost by two to St. Mary’s in the final game, Christian said that it was also one of their best performances and they grew tighter as a team during the trip.

“As long as their sole focus is winning, that’s all I can ask of this team,” Christian said.

Winter break boot camp

When classes are in session, the team is limited to 20 hours of practice every week and must have one day off, Christian said.

“During break there are no practice restrictions and we knew we needed to get better,” Christian said. “All of the four years I’ve been here, the team has gotten better over break. It is my favorite time of the year and the best time for the team.”

On a typical day during break, the players would often work out hard as a team for two-and-a-half to three hours, get individual coaching, watch film and come in at night to work on their shots, Christian said.

“We got here when it was light outside and didn’t leave until it was dark,” senior guard DeAndre Haynes said of the practice schedule.

But the team was allowed to have some fun bonding time during a three-day road trip to California, Haynes said. In San Francisco, they visited Fisherman’s Wharf and toured Alcatraz among other things.

“Coach usually doesn’t let us do stuff like that, but he loosened his grip and we had fun,” Haynes said.

Christian said the team is much better defensively now than they were before break, illustrated by a 24-0 run during the first half of their 84-71 victory over Ball State Wednesday.

What the team needs to win

Despite the victory, the team still needs to work on the small things dealing with rebounding and communication, Haynes said.

Youngblood said they often struggle to finish teams off in the second half, and redshirt freshman Isaac Knight agreed and said sometimes they seem to get bored when they are beating a team by 15-20 points.

Nonetheless, after a tough non-conference schedule including opponents like Syracuse, St. Mary’s, Delaware State and Rutgers, the Flashes appear ready for MAC play and are excited about students returning to campus.

“We need our fans to get here, get involved and get excited about us. When they are here they provide a huge home-court advantage,” Christian said.

Haynes agreed and said it is a lot more fun to play in front of a big crowd.

“We need them because we feed off them. When we’re playing well we start getting the crowd into it,” Haynes said.

Although the M.A.C. Center was almost empty over break, Youngblood said he loved the fans that were there. He added that they will need student support to get through their MAC schedule successfully.

“When you get into MAC play, every team is there to fight,” Youngblood said. “We take it one game at a time and can’t afford to look past any team.”

Christian, Haynes, Youngblood and Knight all agreed it was too early in the season to tell who their biggest competition in the MAC might be, but repeated the names Miami and Ohio several times during their interviews.

“I think we have the team to win the MAC,” Youngblood said. “When we all play to our full potentials, we are a dangerous team.”

Looking to the second half of the season

New additions to the team, including, freshman Jordan Mincy, Knight and junior Omni Smith, are playing with more confidence at this point in the season and turning a lot of heads, Haynes said.

“The younger players are further along than I thought they would be at this time,” Christian said. “I knew they were capable of playing like this, but didn’t know they would step up so soon.”

Knight has shot 32-of-55 and has a team-best .582 shooting percentage. Against Ball State, he reeled off 16 points, making 10-of-11 attempts from the line. He said he is just as surprised in himself as everyone else and did not expect to be putting up these kinds of numbers. Recently as a starter, or even off the bench, Knight has added a spark to drive the team into the second half of the season, Christian said.

The end of the season, which in the past few years has meant playing MAC East foes like Akron, Ohio, Miami and Buffalo, has proven to be treacherous ground for the Flashes. In the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 seasons, the Flashes lost four out of their last 10 games and are playing the same teams this year.

“If we want to go to the tournament, we have to win those kinds of games,” Youngblood said. “This year our whole team mentality is different. Trust is a big theme. Last year everybody had their own agenda.”

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