Pippen’s return, best ball movement in MAC play, help snap Flashes’ two-game losing streak

Junior Danny Pippen (5) makes a layup to extend Kent State’s lead to 55-41 with 13:19 left against Miami University on Feb. 25, 2020. Kent State won 74-61 and Pippen scored 16 points in his return from a back injury.

Ian Kreider Sports reporter

Junior forward Danny Pippen dunked the ball multiple times in the layup line.

An impossible feat just four days ago after Pippen injured his back tying his shoe. He struggled to stand or sit up straight four days ago. He was a game-time decision, but his ability to move in the layup line, paired with the fact that he came back out of the locker room wearing his jersey, all but ensured his participation in Tuesday’s game.

Pippen didn’t start. He checked in four minutes into the game and mustered only a rebound and a foul in six minutes before being subbed out.

Nearly three minutes later, he reentered the game and hit back-to-back 3-pointers. He would miss just one shot, as he scored 16 points and grabbed four rebounds in 25 minutes. 

After the fluke injury, Pippen played one of his most efficient games of the season.

“[My back’s] alright, it’s a little sore,” Pippen said. “I have a heating pack on it right now to loosen some things up.”

Kent State improves to 18-10, 8-7 in Mid-American Conference play. Here are five takeaways from The Flashes’ 74-61 win against Miami:

1. Kent State finished with 17 assists, its most in MAC play this season.

Senior guard Troy Simons set the precedent early. He recorded three of the Flashes’ eight first half assists. 

“Teams look at him like he’s one-dimensional,” senior guard Antonio “Booman” Williams said. “We see him every day so we know he does more than just shoot. I told him today I felt like he wasn’t getting enough shots up, but he told me, ‘I’m just gonna shoot it when I’m open. I’m just gonna wait for the right shot.’”

After recording five assists or more once in his first 25 games, Simons has accomplished that feat twice in the last three games. He failed to score in double digits in either game, and Kent State’s 1-1 during that stretch.

“One time he passed up a lightly contested three to give me a wide open three,” Williams said. “I missed it, but I told him, ‘I want you to shoot that one. Go ahead and get your rhythm going.’ He told me, ‘Nah, you were open so I’m gonna make the right play.’ He’s just playing the right way.’”

Here’s an example of Simons’ passing, which resulted in Williams’ only made 3-pointer of the game:

It remains to be seen if Simons can play this way and put together an impressive shooting performance, but if he can do that the Flashes could end the season with a much-needed winning streak.

2. Pippen’s presence unlocks a dangerous element.

He’s arguably Kent State’s most important player. That title can be shared with Williams, but Pippen has avoided foul trouble more frequently, which makes him more available than Williams. 

Regardless, Pippen’s ability to alter shots on the defensive end and spread the floor when needed on offense gives the Flashes a plethora of options.

He sets screens, posts up most defenders with ease, shoots from the 3-point line and can create his own shot. His size and aggression, mixed with his ability to avoid foul trouble, makes him one of the most dangerous weapons in the MAC. 

Here’s an example of what he can do:

He’s scored 15 points or more in three of his last four games. If he can shoot near 40 percent and hover around 15 points per game, Kent State will be tough to beat down the stretch.

3. Williams scored a game-high 17 points after struggling the first time Kent State played Miami.

He played all 40 minutes. He struggled to stay on the floor for a consistent period of time on Jan. 14 when the Flashes first played Miami. 

“The biggest thing for him is not getting in foul trouble,” coach Rob Senderoff said. “When he hasn’t gotten in foul trouble, it’s rare that he’ll come out; maybe a break here or there.”

In the first matchup he committed an offensive foul while trying to create space for the go-ahead midrange jumper. The play resulted in his fifth foul, ending his night. He scored five points and turned the ball over seven times in 28 minutes.

“I felt like I should’ve made that basket,” Williams said. “So today I was gonna come out and prove that there’s a big difference between me and [Grant].”

He penetrated much more than in the first game. Here’s an example of a nifty pass created from a strong drive:

4. Senior Philip Whittington’s scoring faded after a hot start, but his screens opened up the offense the entire game.

Whittington’s season has been inconsistent. He’s scored less than 10 points in 15 out of the 26 games he’s played in, including two of his last four games.

Whittington scored eight points in the first half, going 4-for-4. Much of his success came in the pick and roll.

“He’s done a good job, and so have our guards in the past couple games in particular of waiting for Phil to set a screen, and then using those screens,” Senderoff said. “We’ve been emphasizing it all year.”

His ability to set hard, quality screens allows Williams to knife through the defense for layups or pass out to Simons and others for wide open 3-pointers. 

“I think Phil’s done a better job these last couple games getting bodies,” Senderoff said. “When he gets a body — early on [he did that] — we were able to hit him on a roll for a dunk. There were other things we were able to do because we were screening bodies. When you don’t do that, guys play 1-on-1 and it’s harder.”

One of the biggest flaws for this team has been their inconsistent ball movement and stretches of inefficient isolation play. Whittington’s screens don’t allow for the offense to devolve into hero ball because players are getting easier shots. 

His screens helped three other players finish in double digits, particularly Williams and sophomore guard Anthony Roberts. Roberts scored 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting, making five of his final six shots. He got into the lane much easier in the second half. 

The Flashes outscored Miami 42-12 in the paint, and Whittington had a lot to do with it.

5. Kent State’s defense swarmed the RedHawks, forcing 16 turnovers and limited penetration.

Miami’s leading scorer, Isaiah Coleman-Lands, scored 12 points. Nobody else on the RedHawks roster scored more than nine points. 

The Flashes’ defense allowed 11 3-pointers, but they limited Miami to seven free throw attempts. That’s just the fifth time Kent State has limited its opponent to less than 10 free-throw attempts. With tonight’s win, the Flashes are 5-0 in such games.

Kent State’s next game is at 6:30 on Friday at Ohio University. The Flashes beat the Bobcats 87-72 on Feb. 15. Simons and Roberts combined to score 48 points while shooting 16-for-22 from the field.

Ian Kreider is a sports reporter. Contact him at [email protected].