KENT: Rob Senderoff probably considers the ESPN reality series All-Access Kentucky must-see TV because it gives the 39-year-old Kent State coach a look inside one of the nation’s most successful programs.
But as his Golden Flashes open what could be the most challenging KSU men’s basketball season in a decade Friday night at home against Drexel, the show could also provide inspiration for Senderoff and his players.
Perhaps no one in the sport reloads a team better than Kentucky coach John Calipari. Say what you want about his job-hopping, seemingly to stay one step ahead of the NCAA law, and the violations that forced UMass and Memphis to vacate Final Four appearances.
There’s no doubt Calipari has become a master at recruiting the one-and-dones, at restocking his roster with the finest talent in the country. He lost three starters off UK’s 2011 Final Four team and won the NCAA title in 2012.
Under Calipari, Kentucky became the first program in the history of the NBA Draft to have four or more players selected in three consecutive years. In that span, he has had 15 players drafted, 11 in the first round. Two went first overall. Six were taken this spring, a record since the NBA went to two rounds in 1989.
That’s not to say that Kent State and Senderoff have anywhere near that stable. But presumably Senderoff is not the only one in Kent watching All-Access Kentucky. The 10 players with a year or less in the program, including four freshmen, two junior college players and one transfer, might see what the defending NCAA champions are doing and believe they can follow in their footsteps. Most might not care that Calipari’s victories have been vacated; all they know is that he wins.
They might think that if perennial Southeastern Conference powerhouse Kentucky can pull it off year after year, why can’t perennial Mid-American Conference powerhouse Kent State do it, too?
Kent State has recorded 20 or more victories 13 of the past 14 seasons. But that string seems in jeopardy since the Golden Flashes return only one starter, senior guard Randal Holt, who returned to practice last Thursday after undergoing surgery on his left knee in June. With Holt out, the first five Senderoff used in a recent scrimmage against St. Bonaventure had a combined 12 starts in their Kent State careers. Holt is his only player in double digits with 59.
On Oct. 29, Senderoff was still coming to grips with those numbers as he prepared to begin his second season.
“I watch coach Calipari … He talks about his team, unprecedented, five new starters. And it is I’m sure at the BCS level,” Senderoff said. “What we’re doing here this year is unprecedented as well. The only difference is I don’t have Nerlens Noel and Will Cauley-Stein. I don’t have five lottery picks. I have good players.”
Part of the revamped roster was by Senderoff’s own doing. Players he thought didn’t “fit” were allowed to go to smaller colleges as they sought playing time.
“It was time to start the way I wanted this to start,” he said.
But Senderoff agreed with the premise that the Kentucky model can show the Golden Flashes that they can uphold their tradition with four new players in the lineup.
“Absolutely,” he said. “To me there’s no excuses, nor do I want to give them any. When we play Drexel, there’s not one who’s going to say we’re not going to win that game. The guys who weren’t starting last year probably think they should be starting. That’s how kids are.”
Cleveland State coach Gary Waters began Kent State’s recent run of excellence with a 23-7 season in 1998-99 that included an NCAA Tournament appearance. He finds himself facing the same scenario as Senderoff with nine freshmen and sophomores.
But Waters believes the philosophy in college basketball has changed. He thinks college players now arrive on campus with great individual expectations.
“I think they come in prepared to play today. Kids are starting as freshmen in high school. So when they leave high school, they come into your program expecting to be on that floor immediately,” Waters said Oct. 31 at the inaugural Coaches vs. Cancer of Northeast Ohio Tip-Off Breakfast at the Sheraton Suites in Cuyahoga Falls.
“The negative part of that is that if they don’t play, they’re ready to leave the institution. We’ve had probably the highest rate of people leaving the institution in the history of Division I. It’s all based on similar things like that. They’re prepared, but not all of them.”
But Waters said he and Senderoff are training and developing players. They’re not getting the cream of the crop like Calipari, players who can walk in and start.
“There’s only a few people who can do that,” Waters said.
But Holt and senior forward Chris Evans, the Golden Flashes’ likely leaders this season, don’t know that. They belong to the generation that believes everything it reads on Wikipedia and everything it sees on ESPN.
Like All-Access Kentucky.
“We’re not thinking about struggling at all,” Holt said at the breakfast. “That’s not even in the conversation.”
This season for the Golden Flashes, naivete could become a virtue.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.