By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
With a 9-2 Kent State team pitted against its legendary former leader, all the pieces are in place for a magical Saturday night at the M.A.C. Center.
The Golden Flashes will play their final non-conference home game of the 2013-14 season tonight at 7 p.m. against Cleveland State (7-6) and head coach Gary Waters, who resurrected the KSU program during an incredible five-year run from 1996-2001 that featured a pair of Mid-American Conference Tournament titles and the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament triumph.
The Flashes have remained relevant since Waters left, earning 19 or more victories the past 15 consecutive seasons, and are now 9-2 under third-year head coach Rob Senderoff for the first time since 2007-08 -- the last time they made the NCAA Tournament.
Senderoff has no direct ties to Waters, but he understands why this game carries extra meaning with Kent State fans.
"It's one of the games that the fans point toward more than me. But I understand that Gary coached here and is in the (Blue & Gold) Hall of Fame, so people have a relationship with him and have fond memories of the job that he did here," said Senderoff. "People look at this game as a very important one, and I get that. Two years ago when we played them here it was sold out, because we had just won at West Virginia and they had just beaten Vanderbilt.
"Hopefully there will be another good crowd here to see our 9-2 basketball team and to see Gary, because of all that he did as a coach here."
Waters made a successful return to Kent two seasons ago, leading the Vikings to a 57-53 victory over the Flashes at the M.A.C. Center. Returning to Kent State will never mean as much to him as it did then, but it's still special.
"It's just great to be home and to get to see people you know and people that supported you," said Waters. "But now the novelty has worn off. You just come back and play the game."
The game itself has classic potential.
Kent State has risen to No. 14 in the latest collegeinsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 poll on the strength of its strong start, which features seven wins in eight home games and a marquee victory at Temple on Nov. 11.
The Flashes' strength has been their balance. They average 76 points per game, but their leading scorer -- junior point guard Kris Brewer -- checks in at just 12.2 points per game. Junior guard Derek Jackson (10.8 ppg) and senior forward Darren Goodson (10.5) also average double figures, while senior forward Mark Henniger tacks on 8.7 points and a team-leading 5.1 rebounds per contest.
Ten different KSU players currently average over three points or rebounds per game.
"Kent plays extremely hard and they're playing together," said Waters. "They look good to me."
Meanwhile, the Vikings' start hasn't been as impressive based on wins and losses, but they're a late breakdown or two from being one of the most talked about teams in the country.
Cleveland State led No. 3 Kentucky by 10 with under eight minutes to play before the Wildcats rallied down the stretch to steal a 68-61 win. The Vikings also played MAC unbeaten Toledo tough on the road, and lost in triple overtime at 8-3 Drexel.
"I think we'll be OK by the end of this thing. We've just gotta take our time and get better and better," said Waters. "We've played good teams. We've only had one bad game, that's when we played Akron (73-61 home loss), and we had just been in a triple-overtime game before that against Drexel. I don't feel bad about our team because of the teams we've played. Several games went down to the wire, and the ones we lost, we just didn't take care of business. Now we've just gotta figure it out."
Cleveland State returns four starters from last year's 14-18 squad, including 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Bryn Forbes, who averaged 12.7 points per game last year and has that number up to 17.8 this season. He's shooting 47 percent from the field, 46 percent from 3-point range and 89 percent from the free-throw line.
"Forbes is a phenomenal shooter," said Senderoff. "Really all three of their guards are good, and they have some athletic frontcourt guys. They really get after the basketball."
Other key performers for CSU include 6-2 sophomore guard Trey Lewis, a transfer from Penn State who averages 13.9 points and 3.8 assists per game; 6-7 senior forward Jon Harris, a transfer from Miami of Ohio who tosses in 10.1 points per outing; 5-8 junior guard Charlie Lee, a returning starter who averages 10.7 points per game; and 6-8 sophomore forward Anton Grady, who adds 9.3 points and 5.1 rebounds after missing most of last season due to a knee injury.
The Vikings have struggled on the road, going 1-5 thus far, and are only 1-3 against MAC teams this season. Still, Senderoff considers Cleveland State to be a highly formidable foe.
"It'll be a challenging game, probably our toughest game to date," said Senderoff, whose Flashes defeated CSU 72-55 in Cleveland last year. "We've gotta take care of the basketball and make sure that we execute offensively, then do a good job with defensive rebounding cause they're athletic. We're gonna have to defend well, rebound, and play one of our better games of the year to have a chance to win."
Facebook: Allen Moff, Record-Courier