On Feb. 1, even those who worked in the Kent State athletic department might not have expected the men’s basketball team to reach its perennial gold standard of 20 victories.
Not after losing on the road to Northern Illinois, a team that scored four points in the first half in its previous game. That setback dropped the Golden Flashes to 11-10, 2-5 in the Mid -American Conference.
The fact the Golden Flashes can record their 14th 20-win season in the past 15 years with a triumph in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament on Thursday is a tribute to the gritty determination of coach Rob Senderoff and seniors Randal Holt and Chris Evans.
But it also raises the question: When will the program get its just rewards?
Perhaps no one in the MAC is doing more with less than Kent State. Little has been done to improve facilities save for redecorating the coaches’ offices. Senderoff and his staff rank in the bottom third in the league in salaries. Senderoff has a three-year contract, rare in the Division I ranks. Hitting victory No. 20 adds another year to Senderoff’s deal, which still won’t allow him to promise a high school senior he’ll be there for his entire career.
Unless they win the MAC title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAAs, the Golden Flashes (19-12, 9-7) will likely be headed to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. But a year ago, Kent State did not pay the $35,000 required to host a first-round CIT game, part of which is covered by the MAC. Much to the chagrin of some in the league, Kent State ended up traveling to South Carolina-Upstate in Spartanburg, where it lost by 15. That game may be at Kent this year.
Former KSU coach Jim Christian, who returned to the MAC this season as coach at Ohio, vocally lobbied for the Golden Flashes not to kill their golden goose before and after the Bobcats and Flashes met in Kent on Jan. 26.
Christian knows KSU made five NCAA appearances in 10 years starting in 1998-99. He was an assistant when Kent State went to the Elite Eight in 2001-02 under coach Stan Heath.
But during the past four years, either the University of Akron or Ohio have represented the MAC in the NCAA. They are seeded 1-2 in this week’s tournament. The gap seems to be widening between the Zips and Bobcats and the rest of the league.
Christian thinks he knows why.
“[Senderoff] is building his program the right way,” Christian said of his close friend in January. “He’s got to get the type of support he needs. That’s community support, fan support and administrative support. When that comes, they’re going to have an unbelievable program for years to come because of him.
“The hard part at this level is to understand that you want to grow your athletic department, but at the same time you can’t neglect the front porch. I think that’s one thing that Ohio has done unbelievably well. They’ve had a lot of success in basketball, and they’ve grown other sports. But they haven’t in the slightest lost track of how important men’s basketball has been. That’s what Kent’s juggling. That’s the struggle and challenge for all the schools in this league.”
Kent State director of athletics Joel Nielsen said Monday that help is on the way. He said KSU has started a “basketball enhancement fund” similar to the one created for football three years ago.
“We’ve taken that [football] model with the hope that our people understand the basketball program needs support just like football did,” Nielsen said in a telephone interview.
Nielsen said the university will announce May 3 a fundraising initiative mainly targeting facilities upgrades and scholarship money for all KSU sports.
“That would be a comprehensive initiative that will include facility upgrades that would enhance basketball in a big way,” Nielsen said. He added that plans and cost estimates for a basketball/volleyball practice area in the M.A.C. Center have also been completed.
Nielsen has yet to find out if MAC schools will receive an unexpected windfall from football bowl revenue, which included an Orange Bowl appearance by Northern Illinois. If so, some of that might have to go to scholarship athletes’ tuition for summer school, which was not previously budgeted. The NCAA now allows summer practice, but the policy has forced some to pay their own way.
Perhaps the May 3 news will make KSU more competitive in recruiting. At the moment, OU can tout its renovated locker room and UA its plush players’ lounge, as well as the presumption that it will eventually build a new arena.
Kent State could also do more in marketing the program. KSU’s heavily promoted “Beauty and the Beast” doubleheader of a wrestling match vs. Cleveland State and a gymnastics meet against Rutgers on Feb. 8 drew a crowd of 2,635 to the M.A.C. Center. In 17 men’s basketball home games, KSU topped that attendance figure only five times — for the opener, for senior night and against UA, Ohio and Princeton.
But Nielsen doesn’t see the MAC as a basketball league of haves and have-nots, with KSU among the latter.
“I don’t think we’ve fallen behind if you look at our wins and losses over the last three years or five years or 10 years,” Nielsen said in reference to UA and OU.
During that span it has been the coaches — Christian, Geno Ford and Senderoff — who have fought to keep the program at its traditional 20-win watermark with little encouragement or much spending, even cosmetic, to present a fresh face to recruits. One once rescued a couch that a football coach had banished to the trash bin because it was better than what sat in his office.
Senderoff’s team might reach 20 victories this season with eight new players. Only two on the roster — Evans and Holt — saw action last season when the Golden Flashes reached the MAC Tournament semifinals and lost to UA.
“The fact that we finished the season winning six out of seven, we got the fourth seed, it’s a great accomplishment for our team,” Senderoff said. “I’m really proud of these guys. We had plenty of opportunities to quit.”
Quitting doesn’t seem to be in the DNA of the Golden Flashes’ players and coaches. If the May 3 announcement is as significant as Nielsen implied, perhaps they won’t have to hang on by a thread much longer.
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.