Growing pains lasted all year for Christian’s new group

Matt Goul

Coach Jim Christian tries to settle down his players during Saturday’s win over Ohio. Christian, in his third year as coach, has more first-year players than ever after guiding a team with five seniors last season.

Credit: Matt Goul

The NCAA Tournament may not be so daunting and unpredictable for whomever gets past this one. Winning the Mid-American Conference tournament has made advancing to the bigger one an extra reward. This year, the ability to call yourself MAC champs could be an accomplishment of survival more than achievement. One game separated regular-season champ Miami from seventh place. Only two games separated first from ninth.

Through it all, Kent State still finds itself in the middle of the MAC’s chaotic cluster of contenders. There were times it seemed this could not happen. Just having a first-round home game, and winning that, seemed farfetched a couple weeks ago when this group could not find a way to win for three straight games.

Junior point guard DeAndre Haynes was not the tempo-setting point guard and captain he was relied on to be. Newcomers Jay Youngblood and Marcus Crenshaw sometimes seemed out of their elements in playing basketball in coach Jim Christian’s systems. Sometimes they still do. Sometimes they do not.

It’s all a part of the carousel of highs and lows.

“When you have an experienced team, there’s certain things you take for granted that you taught before that you know they know,” Christian said. “This year, every day was different. Every day was new.”

He admitted this team could not respond in late-game situations earlier in the season. Winning on the road or coming up with a defensive stop were nonexistent. Christian saw that change. Now, these same players who had to be told when one stop was needed know it without instruction.

The team that was supposed to be Christian’s most athletic and had the potential is back. Whether or not is back in the tournament could change, just like it has game-by-game.

Christian has been cautious with his entire team late in the season. Sophomore forward Scott Cutley said the increased rest down the last stretch of games is more than noticeable. The Flashes lost all four of their final regular season games last year with a fatigued veteran team.

“Every year you learn about how to go about the upcoming season,” senior guard Jason Edwin said. “But he’s having us prepared to go into the Gund to perform well.”

Christian’s imprint on this team is also greater than his first two.

Nate Gerwig is the only player on the roster to play at Kent State under another coach. Stan Heath was that coach his freshman season with Christian as an assistant. Even Haynes, who had committed as a high school senior in Detroit before Christian’s promotion, did not waver when the change was made. He’s one of Christian’s players as much as anybody.

“Nothing really changes. With this team, he’s on us more because we’re a young team,” Haynes said. “He’s teaching more. He’s teaching what to do and where to be on the floor and what defense or offense to run. He still teaches me. I’m still learning.”

Christian said this team is similar to his first one. He had players who were used to winning, but most were used to doing it from the bench.

“There’s no crutch on this team, so it had to be done together, and it had to be built slowly,” Christian said. “There’s going to be ups and downs because when you’re learning, you play inconsistently. But the guys understand now what it takes for them to win. It’s not easy for a group of people to come together and find out what they have to do to win.”

Roles are being found now, he said. Haynes and Crenshaw have relieved each other at point guard while co-existing as a double threat. Junior guard Kevin Warzynski, possibly the most consistent player all season, is still 6-foot-8 and can beat his opponent on the outside. Gerwig has given stretches with brute force even when he could not play too much for the second half of the season.

Haynes said the team’s success from this point on depends on execution. Make the simple plays and passes, he said. The fancy passes that were more active early in the season are not attempted anymore.

“Everybody’s starting to feed off each other more and know each other’s game,” Youngblood said. “The chemistry is starting to come. We just got to feed off of that.”

Christian said this is where he has seen the most development.

Youngblood at this time last season was performing as the national junior college player of the year. He’s found his role cannot be the same as it was a year ago.

He said success could come with taking breaks at the junior college level, but he has come to realize it will only work there. His defensive tenacity and rebounding has jumped like his vertical leap to the basket. In a late-season games against Akron and Ohio, he grabbed an un-guard-like 10 rebounds.

Contact men’s basketball reporter Matt Goul at [email protected].