- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
Davidson won 17 games for two straight seasons in 2002-03 and 2003-04, before the Wildcats established themselves as one of the best teams in mid-majordom.
Butler was a 13-15 team just three seasons ago. And Saint Mary's struggled to a 2-27 mark in 2000-01.
Indeed, most of the current crop of nationally ranked and well-recognized smaller colleges have experienced their share of down years lately. Maintaining consistently high win totals with a non-BCS budget isn't easy. Disruptions are constant, whether it's trying to replace lost senior stars with trickle-down recruits or replacing successful head coaches when they leave for higher-paying jobs.
But Kent State has bucked the odds, winning 20 or more games in 10 straight seasons. The Mid-American Conference's Golden Flashes, by building a reputation for physical play and solid defense, are one of only seven teams that have achieved that standard of extended excellence. Duke, Creighton, Florida, Gonzaga, Kansas and Kentucky are the only other programs in all of Division I that can claim membership in the 20-10 club. (Arizona and Syracuse can join them with several more victories each.)
"Anybody who's ever played, coached or been a part of this program should feel tremendous pride in this," said Kent State coach Jim Christian. "It's a very difficult thing to do, especially at the mid-major level. We've been very fortunate that we've had great players who have had great senior years, and most importantly have led us the right way."
"Kent's all about fitting in," explained senior forward Mike Scott, one of two seniors on the squad and the Flashes' only four-year player. "It's about being in the system, knowing your role and playing it as best you can. Coach knows that guys have egos coming out of high school, and he knows how to mold them into something that will fit this program. But every player still gets to have their own personal shine."
And the Golden Flashes have rarely been shinier. Even in a 10-year run with an average 23 wins that has included four conference titles and an Elite Eight run in 2002, no Kent squad had won this many games at this point of the season. At 24-6, this season's version is the MAC's strongest at-large candidate in a decade. By grinding out a 65-57 BracketBusters win at then-No. 20 Saint Mary's, the Golden Flashes beat a ranked opponent in the regular season for the first time. Two days later, they were celebrated by poll voters, as well. With a No. 24 ranking in last week's ESPN/USA Today poll, Kent achieved its first regular-season ranking in school history.
"[Saint Mary's] is a great basketball team that was ranked, was undefeated at home, and we had to travel across the country to play them," said Christian of Kent's national breakthrough. "So there were a lot of obstacles. Then we got down eight points with six or seven minutes to go; we never became unglued, just kept pecking away and found a way to win it. It was an experience our team can build on."
Kent State started constructing the foundation for its current success in the late '90s. According to Gary Waters, who coached the team from 1996 to 2001 and started the streak with three straight 20-win seasons, blueprints were laid down with lofty future aspirations in mind.
"What we tried to do back then [was] to structure Kent like a high-major program," said Waters, currently the coach at Cleveland State of the Horizon League. "They didn't have a lot of those little things that cost money but contribute to success. Things like an academic adviser, a strength coach, training tables. We essentially had to change the infrastructure there."
Waters led Kent State to a 23-7 record in 1998-99 after a 13-17 campaign the year before. Then he notched 23-8 and 24-10 marks before leaving for the top job at Rutgers.
"If you don't have those things in place, you're not coaching basketball," Waters said. "You're worrying about putting those things in place."
"Those things were in place when we got here, and it's all helped a lot," said Christian, who arrived in summer 2001 as an assistant under Stan Heath before assuming the head coaching position after the ensuing season's Elite Eight run. "But infrastructure doesn't mean much if you don't constantly attract great players. You attract great players by winning basketball games. If you don't attract those great players, you can have all the infrastructure you want, you're not going to win."
And occasionally, a great player falls in your lap unexpectedly.
Al Fisher was a guard off the bench for Siena in the 2004-05 season, averaging 4.8 points per game before leaving school. He resurfaced at Redlands Community College in Oklahoma last season, and -- without seeing him play live -- the Kent State coaching staff took a chance and offered Fisher a scholarship this past August.
"We had a scholarship come open last July," Christian explained. "It's hard to fill one that late in the summer, but we had to find a guard. We got on the phone, we tried to find out who was out there, who was available. We got a call from his junior college coach, Steve Eck. We did our homework, and everybody we talked to talked about how talented [Fisher] was, and how he could really be a good player if he was in the right system. The more we found out about him, we learned that he was perfect for how we play.
"When he finally got to campus, we thought, 'We really got lucky here.'"
"It was kinda hard coming in not knowing anybody," recalled Fisher, a redshirt junior. "I didn't know the coaches or the players. But the leaders on this team, Mike Scott and Q [senior rebounding leader Haminn Quaintance], are great players on and off the court, and they helped me with everything I needed help with."
Fisher, the cousin of the nation's leading scorer Charron Fisher from Niagara, certainly became comfortable in a hurry. He's the team's leading scorer with 14.6 ppg and provides 4.2 assists per game. In the Saint Mary's win, the 6-1 guard tied a career high with 28 points, including a poster-quality reverse layup with 51 seconds left to secure the victory.
"I'd like to think that Al was the most inexpensive all-conference-caliber recruit ever," Christian quipped. "A couple of phone calls and a videotape."
After Fisher's BracketBusting heroics, the Flashes had a week off before returning to league play. The MAC was more than ready for them. At Bowling Green on Saturday, the Falcons led nearly wire to wire in an 89-83 decision, ending Kent's six-game win streak and dropping the Flashes out of the polls. Even though the league has sent only one representative to the Big Dance since 1999, a major reason is that no team is willing to roll over for the front-runner simply for the sake of the league's NCAA reputation.
"As anybody can see, the Saint Mary's game didn't help us very much against Bowling Green," said Scott, who scored 23 points and collected nine rebounds in the losing effort. "Everyone in this league has so much to prove, everyone has a chip on their shoulder. Guys are so gritty in this conference. We may not have the talent other conferences have, yet we have the will and the heart."
"The intensity is crazy, man," echoed Fisher when asked about his first trip through the MAC. "I didn't know that much about it coming in, but everybody in this league comes ready to play, and we're wearing a target because we're Kent State."
Christian is more than used to the target after five-plus years as Kent's head coach, as well as used to the league's decade-long status as a single-bid conference. He has long said that the league's at-large chances are won or lost in November with nonconference performance, but he thinks things might be different this season.
"Our biggest statement was made in February," the coach said. "That Saint Mary's game gave our program a signature win. It opened a lot of people's eyes to how good Kent State is, but it also opened people's eyes as to how good the MAC is."
Which makes the Golden Flashes' tough road back to the NCAAs all the more difficult -- and their run of 10 straight 20-win seasons all the more impressive.
"None of the seniors that have come through our program want the streak to end on their watch," Christian said. "And that's what has sustained it. It's never been our main goal to have a streak like this, but when your goal is to try and win the MAC championship every year, it's just one of the byproducts."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.