Men’s basketball gets back to dancing – six years later


The Kent State men’s basketball team reacts to their seeding in the NCAA Tournament at Water St. Tavern in Kent, Ohio, Sunday. Kent State played UCLA as a 14 seed in the South region in 2017.

Jacob Shondel, Reporter

After six years, the Kent State men’s basketball team is back in the NCAA tournament.

Assistant coach Jon Fleming and graduate student Kevin Zabo went from being players to now working under coach Rob Senderoff.

Zabo, who appeared in all 36 games that season, remembers the “ups and downs” from the 2016-17 season.

“We had to go through some tough times before finally reaching our peak,” he said. “I would say we kind of got hot at the end of the season and then went on a nice little streak.”

Just like the end of the 2023 season, Zabo and Fleming squared off against rival Akron in the regular season finale.

“It’s crazy because we had our senior night against Akron like the team did this season,” Zabo said. “We, unfortunately, lost that game, but it was a home game against Akron, with a big crowd, and we felt like we were starting to get hot, and then we lost.”

Fleming noticed the similarities between the two squads.

“I feel like both this group and that group, just collectively, were really close on and off the court,” he said. “Everyone was willing to sacrifice individual goals for a team goal.”

At the time, all Mid-American Conference teams qualified for the tournament. With the top four seeds earning a bye — the Flashes finished sixth.

Kent State junior guard Kevin Zabo drives by UCLA sophomore guard Aaron Holiday during the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California Friday, March, 17, 2017. Kent State lost 97-80.

“Our first game was on campus, and we won in overtime,” Zabo said. “That gave us a little bit more momentum going into the game in Cleveland.

“We kind of got our swagger back just from that one game.”

After defeating Buffalo (68-65) and Ohio (68-66), the stage was set for a championship matchup against the Zips.

KSU won 70-65, punching its ticket to the NCAA tournament.

“We had to battle our way through that tournament,” Zabo said. “Then finally we got revenge from senior night, defeating No. 1 seed Akron.”

Being on the national stage was a feeling that Fleming and Zabo will never forget.

“You have to enjoy the moment while also staying focused and understanding that you still have a job to do,” Fleming said. “It’s just an awesome opportunity that you’ve worked your whole life for.”

For Zabo, it was his second time in the NCAA Tournament after going his freshman year with San Diego State.

“When you’re out there warming up, you have to be in the moment,” he said, “but once that ball is tipped, it’s time to play basketball, and everything is able to disappear because you’re so focused on winning that game.”

The two former players’ advice for this year’s MAC Tournament champions is to “soak it all in.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and something you will remember for the rest of your life,” Zabo said. “You will be telling your kids and grandkids about it.”

Jon Fleming, Kent State men’s basketball director of player development, poses for a portrait in his office in the MACC Thursday, November 14, 2019.

“It’s an awesome opportunity to represent the school and have a lot of fun with your teammates that you love and will be your brothers forever,” Fleming said.

Fleming hopes that Kent State fans can appreciate what this group of players has been able to accomplish as the program sets its eyes on its first NCAA tournament win since 2002.

“Malique and Sincere didn’t have to come back to Kent State,” Fleming said. “They both believed they had unfinished business after the last season ended.

“They represent the university with a lot of pride; they love Kent State. So I just hope that everyone understands how special that is to have.”

The Flashes (28-6) will tip off against Indiana (22-11) at approximately 9:55 p.m. Friday in Albany, New York.

Jacob Shondel is a reporter. Contact him at [email protected]