Every Kent State men's basketball backer looking at the situation with their head rather than their heart knew the 2012-13 campaign had the potential to be a tough one.
The Golden Flashes had managed to avoid the dreaded "transition" period over the past 14 seasons, winning 19 or more games each year during that span despite losing four coaches and at least one All-Mid-American Conference performer after every successful campaign.
But that unprecedented run of success in the MAC is in jeopardy at long last following Wednesday's tough 82-76 loss at Western Michigan, the Flashes' fifth setback in the past six games, which leaves them 12-11 overall and 3-6 in the MAC with seven regular-season league games remaining.
Could we see this slip coming? Without question.
Kent State returned just two of its top eight scorers from last year's 21-12 squad. The only returning starter, senior guard Randal Holt, suffered a knee injury while taking part in an open gym over the summer. He had surgery at the end of June, missed four months, and did not practice until days before the season-opener.
The other returnee was last year's sixth man, Chris Evans, who was much better known for his dunking prowess than his overall game a season ago.
Toss in seven new players -- three transfers and four true freshman -- led by a second-year head coach in Rob Senderoff, and you have a raw group of 2012-13 Golden Flashes. A team saddled with the daunting task of maintaining the program's elite status in the MAC despite returning just 34 percent of its minutes played from a year ago, second-lowest in the league. A group anchored by two seniors in Holt and Evans who had never been asked to lead before this season, placed in charge of a team filled with newcomers and former bit players.
Considering these facts, it should come as no surprise that the Flashes are sitting last in the MAC East Division at 3-6, or that barring a miracle finish their string of 14 straights seasons with 10 or more MAC wins is about to come to an end.
Still, it is surprising. It's surprising to me, and I'm sure it's surprising to most Kent State fans.
I knew all of the above facts before the season started, and I'm still somewhat stunned to see this team sitting at 3-6 in the MAC. After watching team after team find ways to win game after game over the past 14 years, you just expect the Flashes to continue pulling out more than their fair share -- some how, some way.
That's what tradition is all about.
But typically, tradition-rich programs and franchises have all the necessary support in place to keep them competing at the highest level year in, year out.
Aside from tradition, what major advantages do the Flashes hold over their MAC brethren that keep them consistently among the conference's elite? Let's take a look ...
Talent? Obviously not this year, and really not in as many years past as most fans think.
During my first run covering Kent State sports for the Record-Courier from 1996-2002, I can only remember one team that owned a distinct advantage in talent over the rest of the MAC -- the 2001-02 squad that advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Elite 8. And that's only thanks to the addition of freakishly athletic forward Antonio Gates, a likely future NFL Hall of Famer; the rest of that team featured average to above-average MAC athletes.
I don't think much has changed since then. Kent State has certainly produced a bevy of highly talented players over the past 14 years, but it's not like the rest of the MAC has been annually overwhelmed by the Flashes' unbridled athleticism.
Senderoff sacrificed some potentially difference-making athleticism in the last year while attempting to remake his roster with program players who make good decisions on and off the court. He made the choice not to bring back Eric Gaines, a high-flying 6-5 defensive whirlwind who lettered the past two seasons. He also did not bring back 6-6 forward Patrick Jackson after he tweeted how he'd rather be on spring break than playing in Kent State's postseason tournament game last year.
The year before 6-6 forward Scooter Johnson became academically ineligible and was not brought back. The Flashes also once had Jarekius Bradley, a 6-5 shooting guard who was dismissed from the program after running into legal troubles. Bradley, who would be a sophomore at KSU this season, is currently playing in junior college and is among the top scorers in the country.
These losses, combined with the graduation of four veterans from last year's squad, forced Senderoff to practically start over from scratch in his second season. As far as pure talent goes, the Flashes now find themselves playing catch-up.
Facilities? Certainly not. The M.A.C. Center is the 19th-oldest college basketball arena in the country, and although it was renovated in 1992 it's still one of the most antiquated facilities in the MAC. It's been 10 years since I left the KSU beat, and the only difference between the M.A.C. Center now and then is a couple replay boards and a bare-bones scoreboard.
On top of that, Kent State is one of the only Division I college basketball teams in the country that does not have its own practice gym. So when the M.A.C. Center is in use -- which is often the case -- the players have no facility all to themselves to practice in. A plan is in place to once again renovate the M.A.C. Center that would include adding a practice facility but funding is not yet in place, so completion of the project is likely several years off.
Fan support? Not unless Akron or another local rival (Cleveland State, Ohio) is in town. One would believe that after 14 straight years of unbridled success the Flashes would have a sizable group of loyal supporters who make attending home games a priority no matter who the opponent is, but for whatever reason that's not the case. Kent State's average attendance for 12 home games this year is 2,819. Toss out the Ohio and Akron games and that average plummets to 2,206, which is roughly 1/3 of the M.A.C. Center's capacity.
Still, after digesting all of these facts and many others, we expect Kent State to win every night.
I've written these points myself, yet I still think the Flashes will somehow finish strong this season. Despite Wednesday's loss they've played two of their better overall games in the past week. The emergence of junior forward Darren Goodson as a consistent third scorer, combined with more steady play by sophomore point guard Kris Brewer, has helped solidify the offense. Inconsistency is still an issue across the board, but several players are finally starting to settle into roles as the season enters its stretch run -- much later than had been hoped, but better late than never.
While difficult road trips to Ohio and Akron remain, the rest of the upcoming league games are all winnable. Eight league wins and a run at another 19-win season are still possibilities, as the Flashes should be a tough out in the MAC Tournament -- having been leading or tied with the top three teams in the league in the final two minutes.
I guess sometimes expectations and reality just don't mix.