Setting the standard Print E-mail
Written by Ray Mernagh   
Tuesday, December 16 2008
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ImageOver the last ten seasons, Kent State has been the standard for basketball excellence in the Mid-American Conference. During that span the Golden Flashes are one of seven programs nation-wide to win at least 20 games each year -- the others are Duke, Gonzaga, Creighton, Florida, Kansas and Kentucky.

Kent's 238 wins over the same period places them 13th nationally with a .782 winning percentage, and they are also one of five teams to post at least 10 conference wins in each of those ten seasons (Creighton, Gonzaga, Kansas and Southern Illinois are the others).

The most intriguing thing about the streak might be the fact that Kent State has done it under three different head coaches in Gary Waters, Stan Heath and Jim Christian. Christian is now in the midst of his first campaign at TCU after stalking the sidelines of Kent's Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center -- known as the MACC Center -- for the past six years. Replacing the most successful coach in the program's history is an assistant coach with four years experience at Kent State, Geno Ford.

Ford has a big challenge in front of him to make sure the winning continues under his watch. But before we get started trying to understand how this incredible decade-long run happened, let's go back to January 9, 2002, and see how a cold night in Buffalo almost ended the run before it could begin. 

Nate Gerwig was the starting center on that team as a freshman and he couldn't believe how terrible the season -- one in which the Golden Flashes were ranked #12 in the preseason by Sports Illustrated -- was going to that point. "We started out 3-4 or something like that," says Gerwig, "and we had lost games to Hofstra, Youngstown State, Kentucky and Xavier real early." The Flashes then won five in a row heading into MAC play and went to Buffalo for a game against the still hapless Bulls. 

"To that point the seniors on that team hated Stan Heath," says Gerwig, "they didn't agree with anything he did and were openly questioning him in front of the whole team. That game it was really bad, with three or four guys getting into arguments with him right on the court. We ended up losing the game (66-65) and it was a terrible loss because Buffalo still wasn't very good (the Bulls would only win 12 games total that year)." After the game Kent's young head coach decided he'd had enough. 

"He got real emotional to the point that he was crying," says Gerwig. "He told the seniors 'you guys don't want to win! I do everything I can to put you in a good situation and you don't want to play for me, you're a bunch of cowards and it's too hard for you, you don't want to win!'"

Heath went on to call out all the key players including seniors Trevor Huffman, Demetric Shaw, Eric Thomas and Andrew Mitchell, plus a junior by the name of Antonio Gates.

Funny thing about the episode... it worked! 

"We didn't lose another game until the Elite Eight against Indiana," says Gerwig. "Guys just started buying in right there."

The result, along with the Elite Eight appearance, was a 30-6 record (17-1 in the MAC) and a move to richer pastures for Heath, who headed to Arkansas and the SEC. That Elite Eight would remain the Holy Grail for mid-major programs until George Mason broke through to the Final Four during the 2005-06 season.

Kent State athletic director Laing Kennedy looked around and suddenly realized he had a monster on his hands. Gary Waters had rebuilt Kent State basketball, taking over a program in 1996-97 that had never reached a single NCAA Tournament. Now, with Waters two years into cashing Big East checks at Rutgers and Heath only packing an overnight bag for his stay at the MAC school, the Golden Flashes had boogied in three of the last four Big Dances.

"Gary took a program," says Kennedy, "that wasn't very competitive when I hired him and turned it into an extremely competitive one very quickly. He did it by recruiting outstanding, tough basketball players. He turned Kent State into a program that was known for having physical, well-conditioned, tough players." 

Jim Christian (above) parlayed a strong six-year run at Kent State into a coaching gig with TCU

And for the second year in a row, Kennedy had to roll the dice, hoping he'd make a smart hire that would at least sustain the success that he'd helped create by hiring Waters. Maybe Kennedy saw how close it all came to unraveling under Heath. Saw how an assistant coach by the name of Jim Christian had helped repair the disconnect by persuading the young coach to incorporate some new stuff into the Tom Izzo/Michigan State sets the Golden Flashes had relied on so heavily that year. Or, maybe he just listened to those physical/tough players before making the decision to hire Christian? Gerwig explains.

"Mr. Kennedy had each of us come into his office, and asked us about Coach Christian," says Gerwig. "Every single one of us told him he should hire him. The guy's a wizard with the X's and O's." And that's exactly what Kennedy did, turning the program over to an assistant that not only understood the challenge he faced -- keeping a suddenly super successful mid-major program from crashing back down to reality -- but wasn't the least bit scared of it. Christian also wasn't scared to put his players through grueling practices, and wasn't above using a talented assistant named Geno Ford to help him.

"It was my freshman year," recalls point guard DeAndre Haynes, "and that was maybe the worst practice ever. I don't want to even think about that man!" It seems as if Haynes had played particularly bad in a game against St. Bonaventure and Ford, who was still 28 or 29 at the time, put on a show that showed why he was one of the all-time leading scorers in Ohio high school history and a former All-MAC point guard. Haynes' teammate Gerwig, is more than happy to recall it for him.

I will never forget the day," says Gerwig, "it was DeAndre's freshman year and we had just lost a game at St. Bonnie that ended our winning streak. Their point guard went crazy with double figures in points and dimes. The next day in practice Coach Christian has us in a defensive drill, and we had to stop the action three times to get out of the drill. Coach Ford was the point guard for the other team in practice and he went to work. He just killed Dre and everybody else that tried to guard him. We had to get 3 stops in a row and we couldn't do it. We sat in that dang drill, in a defensive stance, for the entire practice." 

Christian's first season at the helm started out with a bang as Kent ran out to a record of 17-2. It looked like a sure-fire at large bid would come the Flashes way before they dropped 6 of 7 games down the stretch before the MAC Tournament. They turned it around in Cleveland, getting to the MAC final where they lost to future lottery pick Chris Kaman and Central Michigan.

"I would've liked to see what that team would've done in the NCAA's," says Christian. Instead, the Golden Flashes finished 22-9 and bowed out in the first round of the NIT. With the departure of Antonio Gates, the rest of the MAC licked their chops at the thought of Kent finally coming back to earth.

Instead, in what seems like an annual tradition during the ten straight 20-win seasons, a player would seemingly come out of nowhere to lead Kent to another 22-9 finish in 2003-04.

By now it's obvious that Kent State has done an incredible job identifying players that other schools didn't in the last ten years.

In the first years of the run it was point guard Trevor Huffman. Huffman, from tiny Petoskey, Michigan, didn't have a single D-1 scholarship offer the August before his freshman year. He then sent a tape of himself to Gary Waters in desperation. Waters had a scholarship come open and offered it to Huffman at the last minute. Huffman left Kent State four years later as the all-time leading scorer in Kent State history and continues to earn good money overseas to this day.

The surprise in 2003-04 came in the form of 7-foot-center John Edwards. Edwards had come to Kent State as a walk on player and had split minutes with Gerwig for most of his time there. With Gerwig sitting out the season with an injury, Edwards startled the MAC by earning first team all league honors and the MAC's defensive player of the year award. "Edwards improved more in his time at Kent State than any player I've ever seen," said then Bowling Green coach Dan Dakich. 

By now it's obvious that Kent State has done an incredible job identifying players that other schools didn't in the last ten years. In some cases it was more luck than anything else (Huffman and current senior guard Al Fisher) but Christian saw something in guys like Mike Scott, Scott Cutley and John Edwards that other coaches missed. Current assistant Rob Senderoff says it's more than pinpointing kids that might turn into players, but also identifying kids with the toughness to be leaders that's been a key for the program's sustained success. 

"Senior leadership and an expectation of success by our players would be the biggest thing I could point to," says Senderoff. "Our kids truly believe that they should win every time they go on the floor and that's helped us win tight games over the years." Senderoff also credits Kennedy's support of the program as a huge key in the run. "We have an AD who is very supportive of the coaches as well, says Senderoff. "I think all of it helps because Kent State isn't the prettiest school in the MAC, we don't have the best facilities, so I think all the things I referenced have really helped the program sustain excellence."

Former player Kevin Warzynski, the MAC Tournament MVP from Kent's 25-9 NCAA team of 2005-06, thinks the key lies in not only the leadership Senderoff speaks of, but sacrifice as well.

"It can take some programs years to figure out what it takes to be successful," says Warzynski, "but I think Kent State figured out the two most important things to being a great team every year are leadership and sacrifice. They don't always go hand-in-hand, but great teams and winning programs usually figure out a way to mesh the two. At the mid-major level you are going to have juniors and seniors as the heart and soul of your team. They're usually going to be the leading scorers and rebounders, the most vocal and garner the most media attention.",

Warzynski believes this puts upperclassmen at Kent State in a natural leadership position that must be seized, both on the court and off it.

"I learned how to take things from the older guys," says Warzynski, "because they went through the same things. Like when Coach was cussing me out, there were guys that took me aside and taught me how to deal with it so it didn't bother me. I got benched my senior year but I understood it and still became sixth man of the year and the tournament MVP because I knew that for a team to succeed everyone has to make sacrifices." Seniors Armon Gates and Omni Smith had to sacrifice starting roles the next year, just like Warzynski the year before, and their team ended up winning 27 games. Following that 27-win season in 2007-08, Jim Christian, after six years at the helm of the MAC's best program, was hired by TCU to rebuild their moribund program.

Laing Kennedy didn't flinch, hiring Geno Ford about a week later. Ford says his team is struggling with both senior leadership and defense early in the season.

Might be time to play some point guard in practice, huh coach? 

Odds and Ends 
Hot Hawk
Although the play of the MAC as a whole has been less than impressive -- okay, it's been downright putrid -- Miami and Mike Bramos have refused to let that hold them down. Young Mike, he's actually a senior but his face
Red-hot RedHawk, Michael Bramos
fits the moniker, helped the RedHawks to a pair of victories in a three-day span, 69-45 over Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Thursday and 62-50 over Valparaiso on Saturday. He averaged 27 points per game during the week, hitting 60 percent (18-of-30) from the floor and 70.6 percent (12-of-17) from three-point range! For the year Bramos is at a 50% clip from the land of trey. Bramos has scored 26 or more points in four straight contests, while hitting six treys in three of those games and eight in another. He went 6-for-8 from beyond the arc (.750) against UW-Milwaukee en route to a game-high 26 points, then made six of nine toward 26 points vs. Valpo.
Upset Special?
Possible Upset Alert: RedHawks at West Virginia this Saturday. Not sure if Kenny Hayes will be available but if he is Miami has a shot in this game should Bramos find a way to deal with West Virginia's D, which will no doubt focus on him much like Pitt did earlier this season when they pretty much shut him down. West Virginia, especially if they're still without Alex Ruoff, couldn't hit water if they fell out of a freaking boat at this point (in other words, they can't shoot)! In most of their contests that hasn't mattered because their slew of young, athletic freaks (Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones, even guard Truck Bryant) have joined their upper class role models and crashed the boards like a pack of wild hyenas. West Virginia does everything right -- much like Miami -- except shoot the ball. For Miami to win, they'll have to do three things -- shoot well, control tempo and keep West Virginia off the offensive boards.
Injuries Hurt
Hayes is out with a wrist injury and I haven't heard back from my guys at Miami as to whether he'll play Saturday against the Mountaineers. Central Michigan ended a three-game losing streak last night against Alcorn State but has lost Chris Kellermann for a while to a fracture in his foot.
Humpty Getting Into A Groove
I was pretty high on Humpty Hitchens before the season started and the Akron freshman guard is starting to find his comfort level as he transitions from high school ball to college. Keith Dambrot says the biggest thing that's surprised him about Hitchens is his coachability -- "he really wants to be a great player and he's done everything I've asked of him, he's been extremely teachable" says Dambrot. It says here the Zips will be in the thick of things come February, and if that's so, this will be Dambrot's best coaching job yet. Don't be surprised if Dambrot doesn't go after a JUCO wing if he thinks that's what his team will need to get over the top next season. The kid would have to be an impact player for Dambrot to go after him, but the coach will do it if he thinks it's needed.
Western Michigan Struggling
People seem shocked but I kind of expected it. Myself and two buddies went over their schedule before the season started and counted wins we thought the Broncos could get. The highest total was 13 (mine). This team lost its heart and soul, not to mention its best player, in Joe Reitz. That leaves one hell of a vacuum. They played UNLV
Teams are turning up the heat on WMU's Kool
tough which surprised me, thanks in large part to a big effort from senior Derek Drews. They need this next game against Iona bad before they go back on the road to Southern Illinois. As incredible as it sounds, they could still win the West and challenge for a Friday night date in Cleveland come March. The league is lacking post play almost across the board. Curious to see if redshirt freshman Juston Hairston, who struggled all preseason with a groin injury, will get a shot at some more minutes now that he's healthy. Hairston has some length at 6'5 and is really athletic. If Steve Hawkins wants to run, as he stated last week, seems like the kid from Fort Wayne could help. I know there's a logjam at the 3 and the 4 position where Hairston would probably play...but the Broncos are 2-8 with that logjam. David Kool is really struggling with ramped-up defensive attention now that there isn't a viable inside scoring option to take the eyes of the defense off him. 

College hoops insider Ray Mernagh is the basketball contributing editor/writer for The Pittsburgh Sports Report, a writer for the Basketball Times and author of "1 Chance to Dance: A Season inside Mid-Major Hoops in Mid-America." Mernagh will be contributing a weekly column to MAC Report Online and is also the publisher of
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