OXFORD, Ohio — Remember how suddenly the walls caved in on Kent State last March? Remember the team that rolled into the MAC tournament title game having won 14 in a row, when everything fell apart like a sand castle at high tide? First, four players were suspended for at least a half over a blue-language social media post about their title game opponent Akron. Then, a 20-point shellacking by the Zips.
Goodbye winning streak. Goodbye NCAA tournament. Just... thud.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” coach Rob Senderoff said. “Coaching in this conference so long, I know how fragile it is. But it’s like everybody in life, there’s disappointments and you’ve got to move forward. I think our team has done a really good job this year of playing with a lot to prove.”
This is what playing with something to prove looks like these days at Kent State: A 12-3 record and a 69-66 win over Miami (OH) on Saturday, with the help of 31 points by Sincere Carry and 10 steals. But to understand why the Golden Flashes are one of the most dangerous teams nobody talks much about, we should begin with their three losses, not their 12 victories.
In late November, Kent State traveled to College of Charleston and led nearly the entire game until getting passed in the last minute, 74-72. Charleston is now in the top 25 in the AP poll.
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Three days later, the Flashes led into the last minute again before losing 49-44 at Houston. The Cougars might be No. 1 in the next poll. “That’s the first time all year someone has punched us in the mouth,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said that night. “We’re used to punching other people in the mouth around here.”
Nine days later, a trip to Gonzaga, where all guests go to suffer. The Zags have won 74 home games in a row. That particular night was No. 69, but it did not come easily. Kent State was up by four points with 3:38 to go before giving way 73-66. The Flashes defended the nation’s top shooting team into a 45.5 field goal percentage. “They were every bit as good as advertised," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Three ranked teams with a current combined record of 45-5, playing on their home courts and fortunate to get out alive.
What did it all mean?
“That we’re serious,” Carry was saying after scorching Miami (OH) on Saturday. “We could be a real contender if we’re on our A game. It also made us a lot hungrier. We want to win bad because we feel like we could be one of the top teams in the country."
Senderoff seconds the motion.
“When we’re playing our best we can play with anyone. We have to get back to playing our best.”
That seems to be a bit of an issue at the moment. Kent State had to scrap to get past its first two MAC opponents, Western Michigan and Miami (OH). Lately, this has not quite been the cold-eyed bunch that caused so much trouble at Houston and Gonzaga. Still won five in a row, though.
“I’m hoping that we can learn through winning. A lot of teams, they lose before the light switch goes back on,” Senderoff said. “We just haven’t played quite with that edge the last couple of games. We need that. That’s what makes us good. What makes us good is not talent, it’s competitive spirit. And we will. I’m not worried about it, but I also know we need to recalibrate a little bit to get ourselves where we want to be.”
And there is not the slightest doubt where Kent State wants to be. That fire was fanned last March by the 75-55 Akron score.
“As soon as we lost, in the locker room guys were saying `I’m coming back,”’ Carry said. “We’ll never forget that feeling. I watched them celebrate after the game and I want to get back there.
“Every night we’re out there competing and trying to prove a point."
Carry was MAC Player of the Year and scored only six points that night, missing nine of 11 shots and committing nine turnovers. Oh yeah, he wants to get back.
They all do, because nearly every important Kent State player returned, and senior transfer Miryne Thomas arrived from Ball State. That gives Senderoff a seasoned lineup that understands where it wants to go and how bad it feels not to get there. And he knows how to win. In his 12th year, he has never had a losing season. Not many guys on that list. “I guess it means I’ve had a lot of good players,” Senderoff said. “I’m appreciative of all of them. It’s not me, it’s those guys.”
Defense does much of the heavy lifting for this team. Kent State is 16th in the nation in field goal percentage defense and 11th in turnovers forced. Guard Malique Jacobs leads the nation in steals with 3.21 a game. And there’s Carry at both ends, averaging 17 points, leading the team in assists and second in steals.
“When you have (Carry) on your team that helps a lot,” Senderoff said. “I think he’s the best mid-major point guard in the country. If everything is judged on winning, then he’s certainly the best mid-major point guard in the country. He’s as good defensively, if not better, than he is offensively and we just saw him score 31 tonight.”
Indeed, his performance is often as memorable as his first name. Sincere? His parents were big fans of a crime drama movie called Belly, and Sincere was a main character in the film. “I love my name because it’s unique,” Carry said.
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What he’d also love is leading Kent State to its first NCAA tournament berth in six years. There's probably only one road to get there for Kent State and that’s getting back to the MAC title game to atone. The MAC does not dwell in the world of multiple bids.
Senderoff was once a Miami (OH) graduate assistant for renowned coach Charlie Coles and remembers Coles' words about life in single-bid leagues. “He used to say there’s just one cookie at the end. I think what you have to do when you coach in these leagues and play in these leagues is appreciate just how hard it is, the regular season. Last year we had a great season. A borderline legendary season. We just needed one more win. It’s very fleeting but that pressure is part of it when you play in these leagues.
“We have a lot to prove and we feel like we have a lot in front of us to play for.”
And they’re dangerous enough to make it happen. Ask Houston and Gonzaga.