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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
A year ago, the so-called experts picked Kent State to finish in the middle of the pack in the MAC East Division, despite seven straight 20-win seasons and a nucleus of four established seniors. Well, so much for preseason polls.
The Golden Flashes capped 2005-06 with a sweep of the MAC regular season and tournament championships and finished 25-9. The last four of eight straight seasons or 20 or more wins at Kent has come under Jim Christian's watch. The 2006 MAC Coach of the Year was rewarded with an extension through 2012-13.
In August, when Barry Collier left Nebraska to return to Butler, the Cornhuskers had Kent State's leader on their radar. One year earlier, Massachusetts had been the suitor. But it seems as if Christian is putting his family, happiness, and security ahead of dollar signs.
"I am happy here," Christian said. "I appreciate what [Kent State] has done for me, and I realize I have a great job. It's special to have this kind of tradition, and the story keeps getting better."
Christian's mentor is Ralph Willard, currently head coach at Holy Cross. He played for Willard in high school and then served as his assistant for five seasons at the college level, two at Western Kentucky and three at Pittsburgh.
A streak that began with Gary Waters (now at Cleveland State), continued briefly with Stan Heath (now at Arkansas), and has carried over to Christian's watch has produced 189 wins (23.6 per season) and eight consecutive postseason berths (1999-NCAA, 2000-NIT, 2001-NCAA, 2002-NCAA, 2003-NIT, 2004-NIT, 2005-NIT, 2006-NCAA). It's a run of success unprecedented in MAC history.
"We have received strong leadership from our upperclassmen," Christian said. "It's infectious. Once you see great leadership, you step across the line."
Heath's one season (2002) resulted in the memorable trip to the NCAA Elite Eight and a 30-6 finish. At that point, Christian took over and the program has not skipped a beat.
"The torch keeps getting passed from class to class," Christian said. "Nobody wants to be the senior class that sees the run end. Our players take pride from being in the program. It's a system we are proud of."
Eight straight postseason appearances by a mid-major program is a remarkable feat, especially in the MAC, where parity usually is the theme.
The MAC East was a dogfight last season with Kent (15-3), Akron (14-4) and Miami (Ohio) (14-4), ending up 1-2-3, and the two tournament finalists from the previous year, Ohio (10-8) and Buffalo (8-10), finishing 4-5.
"It was tight," Christian said. "We're 14-2 going into the final week and we're still in a race."
Gone from last season's club are DeAndre Haynes (13.0 ppg, 3.9 apg), a 6-2 combo guard who had a bummer of a junior year and came back to earn MAC Player of the Year; Joel Youngblood (14.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg), a 6-5 small forward and first-team All-MAC selection; Kevin Warzynski (10.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg), a 6-8 forward-center and the MAC's Sixth Man of the Year; and Nate Gerwig (6.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg), a 6-9, 260-pound center, an unsung hero and the last connection to the 2002 Elite Eight team.
That is a high-powered group to lose.
Can Kent State make it nine 20-win seasons in a row? KSU has found a way to reload each time and Christian will be quizzed ad nauseam about losing his top three scorers and the indispensable Gerwig. Furthermore, the NCAA applied its new Academic Progress Rate (APR) and sacked the Flashes two scholarships for 2006-07. The penalty reportedly cost Kent State a prize recruit in 6-7 banger Shane Ross, out of Lansing (Mich.) Waverly High School. Ross wound up signing with Toledo.
But don't dismiss Kent State. Don't do it, despite the personnel losses and the APR penalty. Don't bury a team motivated by tradition and fresh off an NCAA appearance.
"We have high expectations that we place on ourselves," Christian said.
The talent level is far from being dried up. Several members of last season's supporting cast are more than capable of stepping into the limelight.
"We have such a balanced team, we never look like we are returning much," Christian said.