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On the morning after a bitterly disappointing 2013-14 Kent State basketball season came to a close with a pair of first-round Mid-American Conference Tournament losses, Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen expressed support for both of his head coaches.
Third-year leader Rob Senderoff's Golden Flashes men's squad closed a 16-16 season with a 71-64 loss at Miami. The final win total was the lowest since 1997-98, and Kent State failed to advance to MAC tourney play in Cleveland for the first time since the event was moved to the city in 2000.
Meanwhile, the Flashes women's team was ousted from the tourney by host Ball State 73-38. Kent State finished 7-23 in Danielle O'Banion's second season at the helm, and are now 10-50 over the past two years.
While no one is the least bit satisfied with those results, Nielsen believes he has the right coaches in place to get things turned around.
"Obviously at Kent State our expectations are quite high for both of our basketball programs, and it was obvious this year we didn't meet our expectations," said Nielsen. "Expectations aren't a bad thing, it's something we're all aware of and we all embrace, but unfortunately some years you may not meet those expectations. We certainly back Rob and what he and his staff have done, and I'm excited about the future (of the women's team) under Dani.
"We certainly expect, on the men's side more specifically, that it's just a one-year blip in our history, and we'll be back where all of us want to see the program next year."
The Flashes men's squad started the 2013-14 campaign 8-1, and seemed primed to run its streak of seasons with 19 wins or more to 16 in a row. But Kent State dropped three of its last four non-conference games in December, then went 2-5 in MAC play during the month of January -- closing with four straight losses.
The rest of the season was a roller-coaster ride. A two-game losing streak was snapped with an impressive 75-61 victory at Ohio, but the Flashes proceeded to lose their last three games of the season, including a pair of setbacks to the RedHawks (13-17).
Kent State had earned 21 wins and advanced to the MAC Tournament semifinals in each of Senderoff's first two years.
"Some people say basketball is maybe one of the easier sports to get better at quickly, but sometimes it can go the other way also due to the small numbers that you work with," said Nielsen. "If you have a situation where you lose a number of student-athletes in one year through graduation or for other reasons, or you miss on a recruiting class or you miss on one kid here and there, it can adversely effect the program (quickly) compared to some of the other sports that have larger roster numbers."
"I think we got hurt there. It's not necessarily all been this one year, it could have been recruiting decisions that we made two or three years ago, and we had some discipline decisions to make a couple years ago. Now it's just showing up on the court.
"Typically, it's a combination of things (that go wrong), and I think that's what kind of caught us this year."
Despite their struggles, the Flashes were still able to post wins over Ohio and Akron -- the two teams that played in the MAC tourney title game last year. However, they also suffered losses to traditionally lower-level teams like Central Michigan, Bowling Green and Northern Illinois.
"It seemed at times this season that we weren't very far away from those teams that finished at the top of the league. Then you reassess it and sometimes you think you are a long ways away," said Nielsen. "But you've always gotta take that idea that you're closer than you are farther away, and I certainly think we are, with some pieces that we have coming back next year and some pieces we have sitting out this year. If you look at Toledo (26-5) for example, they had two or three pieces sitting out last year, and you saw what the addition of those guys did for their team this year."
Kent State has a prized transfer in 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Jimmy Hall ready to fill a glaring void in the post, especially on the offensive end. The Flashes also had 7-4 center Blake Vedder sitting out this season as a transfer, and they signed three players early last November, including 6-5 swingman Gary Akbar, a transfer from Midland Junior College in Texas.
"Rob was part of (coaching) teams that recruited all of those student-athletes that won those back-to-back conference championships (in 2002-04, and 2009-11), so he's a proven recruiter and a proven coach," said Nielsen. "We'll get the reassessment going right now, then we'll get back on the road and recruit and prepare for next year."
Senderoff signed a three-year contract worth $250,000 annually when he was hired in April of 2011, and two years have been added since he reached his 20-win incentive in each of his first two seasons.
O'Banion's Flashes improved four wins over a year ago, but still struggled immensely through much of the season, losing 15 games by 17 points or more. They did show some life down the stretch, going 4-7 in their final 11 games, but still suffered three lopsided defeats.
"I thought the team was competitive the second time around the conference season this year," said Nielsen. "Obviously we didn't play very well (Monday at Ball State), didn't shoot very well, but we saw signs that the team is at least starting to understand the philosophy and the basics of what Dani and her staff are putting in place. We're really excited about the (talent) influx next year of the class that's already signed.
"With what we saw the second half of the conference season this year, and knowing the type of young ladies (O'Banion) has coming into the program next year, I think that you'll continue to see improvement."
Kent State's roster has been completely revamped in just two years under O'Banion, and Nielsen believes all the change has slowed the development process.
"We've struggled with our numbers, and so we have to continue to recruit large classes. It just takes a little extra time when you're recruiting the numbers in classes that we've been recruiting," said Nielsen. "I think that more than anything else we have to stabilize our numbers, get our numbers up. Then you've gotta find people that can put the ball in the basket. At the end of the day that's still what it's all about."
O'Banion signed a four-year contract worth $160,000 annually in April of 2012.
Facebook: Allen Moff, Record-Courier