Just days before the first-time Mid-American Conference Tournament champion Kent State men's basketball team was scheduled to make its 'Big Dance' debut in March of 1999, Huffman suffered a severely sprained ankle during practice.
The little-known recruit from northern Michigan was able to play just seven minutes against Temple, and didn't produce a single point, assist or rebound in the Golden Flashes' 61-54 first-round loss. He was a key member of Kent State's bench back then, a true freshman guard averaging nearly nine points per game, and coach Gary Waters said afterward that a healthy Huffman could very well have pushed his squad past the Owls.
"That was probably the most frustrating thing that's ever happened to me," said Huffman. "I've prayed for two straight years to get another chance to play in the NCAA Tournament."
Those pleas have been answered.
Huffman, fresh off an MVP performance at the 2001 MAC Tournament last weekend, will lead the Flashes (23-9) into battle against Indiana (21-12) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday at 7:55 p.m. in San Diego.
"It has really unfolded exactly the way I dreamed it would," said Huffman. "To be healthy, playing in the NCAA Tournament, and able to leave it all on the floor this time. You can't ask for a better opportunity."
Kent State's second NCAA tourney bid is a blessing to several of Huffman's teammates as well.
Junior center Mike Perry, a former Barberton High School star, missed the entire 1998-99 season after breaking a bone in his foot during preseason practice.
"Even though I was able to practice by the end of the year, I didn't really feel like part of the team," said Perry. "I set a goal back then to help this team get back into the NCAA Tournament, and now here we are. It's an unbelievable feeling."
Junior guard Demetric Shaw was also forced to sit out the '98-99 campaign after transferring to Kent State from Tulane University.
"I think I'm a little more antsy than some of these other guys, because I had to sit on the bench and watch them play that first year," said Shaw. "It hurt just sitting there, knowing you can't do anything to help the team. I'm looking forward to showing people what I can do."
Eric Thomas did play two years ago against the Owls, but wasn't expected to be available during this season's stretch run. Kent State's junior forward spent nearly three months rehabilitating a foot injury that forced him to miss all but two games in 2000-01, including 20 in a row since last December, before he made a shocking return to action in the MAC Tournament quarterfinal battle with Bowling Green last Thursday.
Thomas wound up playing 44 minutes in three games, and was on the court during crunch time in the Flashes' 67-61 title game victory over Miami.
"I made a promise to my teammates that I was going to come back and help the team in the tournament. That's what kept me going," said Thomas. "My foot isn't bothering me now. Coach was a little worried about my stamina, but that hasn't been a problem either. I'm not thinking about anything right now but helping my team win. Scoring, rebounding, defense, whatever I can do."
Senior forward Kyrem Massey participated in Kent State's first NCAA Tournament clash along with current teammates Thomas, Huffman, junior guard Andrew Mitchell and senior center Rashaun Warren, but was far from satisfied afterward.
"The first time we got caught up in the hoopla, and I don't think we were completely focused on playing basketball," said Massey. "Now that five of us have been through the process, we know what to expect and we know how to lead the younger guys through it.
"This time we're going in thinking about only one thing, winning a basketball game."
Phone: (330) 678-5460