By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Call it wishful thinking by the rest of the Mid-American Conference.
Last year, Kent State's perennial power men's basketball squad was picked to slide to fourth in the MAC's East Division Preseason Poll after losing four senior starters. The Golden Flashes wound up third, reached 20 wins for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons, and were a missed 3-pointer away from playing in the MAC Tournament Championship Game.
This year, Kent State is once again considered an also-ran by the so-called experts, who rated the team fourth-best in the East Division Preseason Poll. But despite losing First-Team All-MAC performer Chris Evans and four-year letterman Randal Holt, the Flashes have no intentions of making the experts look good by falling from the ranks of the MAC elite this winter.
"If you look at the respect factor, nobody else thinks anything of these guys except for me. Otherwise they would have gotten some sort of recognition (in the preseason)," said third-year KSU coach Rob Senderoff. "We were picked fourth (in the East), didn't have one all-conference player in the preseason.
"Nobody thinks anything of these guys, but that's fine. That's why you play the games. My expectation is for these guys to play with a chip on their shoulder."
That's pretty much a given for the Golden Flashes, who have earned precious few of their 348 victories over the past 15 seasons -- which calculates to over 23 per campaign -- by simply unleashing superior athletes on overmatched opposition. Effort and grit have been just as critical to Kent State's success as talent, and that will need to be the case once again this year.
"Just find a way," said Flashes senior forward Mark Henniger. "However we've gotta get it done, get it done."
Henniger is one of three returning starters who will serve as captains for Kent State this season, along with junior point guard Kris Brewer and senior forward Darren Goodson.
Henniger added some muscle to his 6-foot-9 frame, bulking up to 230 pounds. He averaged 4.7 points and 3.6 rebounds per game last year, and will be expected to increase those numbers while spearheading the Flashes' defensive effort in the post.
Goodson (6-5, 245) started off slowly in his first season at KSU last year as a junior-college transfer, but came on strong in MAC play, averaging 13.7 points during the last 13 games of the regular season. He wound up producing 8.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per contest.
Brewer (6-3, 185) started at point guard as a sophomore and also played much better during the stretch run. He is Kent State's top returning scorer, averaging 9.1 points, while shooting 42.4 percent from 3-point range last year. He also led the team in assists at 2.7 per outing.
Brewer is the one "freak" athlete the Flashes possess.
"Kris is the biggest, most athletic, fastest (point guard) in the league," said Senderoff. "He should be a great defender."
Senderoff has extremely high expectations for all three of his captains this season.
"They have to lead our team every night, whether it's going well for them or not going well for them individually," said Senderoff. "Darren's gotta be a facilitator, score when the opportunity arises, but also be a great passer. I've told him many times I think he's the best passing frontcourt guy in the conference, but he's gotta be that every night.
"Mark needs to be our most vocal defender, our best frontcourt defender, and he's gotta become a better rebounder, especially on the defensive end. And I expect Kris to be the best player on the floor most nights that we play. If he's not the best player on the floor, then he certainly can't be any worse than the third-best player on the floor.
"Those are my expectation, and they're pretty high for all of them. I know that's what they want. Now they've gotta go do it, night in and night out."
The Flashes have five other letterwinners returning, along with several newcomers who will be expected to contribute immediately.
Junior guard Devareaux Manley (6-4, 195), who started in Friday's season opener against Ohio Northern, shot nearly 43 percent from 3-point range and will be given more chances to fire away this season. Senior forward Melvin Tabb (6-9, 255) showed flashes of brilliance, but also struggled through much of his first season at Kent State last year, while 6-8 sophomore forward Chris Ortiz's promising rookie season was derailed by a foot injury sustained in late November.
Sophomore backup point guard Kellon Thomas (5-11, 180) had off-season knee surgery, but returned to practice about midway through camp, while sophomore forward Khaliq Spicer (6-9, 210) is also back after seeing limited action a year ago.
Newcomers include Derek Jackson, a 6-1 junior guard from Cleveland who transferred from Central Michigan and starred in KSU's opener. Jackson, who made 89 3-pointers in two years with the Chippewas and was among the MAC leaders in steals as a sophomore, produced 18 points and four steals in the Flashes' 84-48 victory over Division III Ohio Northern last Friday.
Senderoff has called Jackson his team's best defender.
"Jackson's got great anticipation skills and great feet, and he's active," said Senderoff. "Defense is a priority for him. He will guard the other team's best perimeter player just about every night."
Sophomore guard K.K. Simmons (6-3, 190) is making his debut after sitting out last season as a transfer from UNC Wilmington. Sophomore swingman Devin Carter, a transfer from Lake Land College in Illinois, was the Flashes' second-leading scorer in the four exhibition games they played in the Bahamas in August.
Redshirt freshman guard Tyler Scott (6-5) and 6-8 freshman forward Marquiez Lawrence are also capable of cracking the rotation this season.
Kent State will need to make up for the 31 points and 11 rebounds Evans and Holt produced every night, and will need to identify a new go-to player when the game's on the line.
"There's certainly more balance than last year's team, but at the same time, guys have to step up because I don't think we have a guy like Chris Evans that will average 17 points per game," said Senderoff.
The Flashes will also be undersized, with the 6-5 Goodson starting at power forward, so rebounding and defense are concerns. Brewer actually led the team in rebounding against ONU (8) and in the team's second closed scrimmage against Robert Morris.
"We have to have a defensive mindset and a rebounding mindset," said Senderoff. "We're not very big, so the whole team has to defensive rebound. The defensive mindset is something I have to work with these guys on. I have to have more guys think about their defense more than their offense."
Despite their deficiencies, Kent State fully expects to contend for a MAC title once again this winter. The Flashes regrouped from a midseason lull to win nine of their last 12 games a year ago, and will look to continue that success this season - even though few people outside of their own locker room believe it will happen.
"Last year we had the same predicament - no (preseason) all-conference players, they picked us fourth in the (East Division)," said Goodson. "We're gonna come out and play hard every night and play with a chip on our shoulder. I want to win the MAC my senior year."
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