KENT — As wily veterans who have combined to play in 223 collegiate games, and win the majority of them, senior guards Jaylin Walker and Jalen Avery are the indisputable leaders of the 2018-19 Kent State basketball team.
But the Golden Flashes wouldn't be sitting at 17-5 heading into Friday night's showdown at rival Akron without the significant contributions junior newcomers Antonio Williams, Philip Whittington and CJ Williamson have made on both ends of the floor.
Williams and Williamson have started in the backcourt in virtually every game this season, and Whittington is the starting post player for a team that's sorely lacking depth inside. They were recruited to provide immediate help, and all three have delivered.
“Those three guys as transfers have had a huge impact on our group,” KSU coach Rob Senderoff said. “We brought them in to fill an immediate need, but for them to have adapted as quickly as they have and play as well as they have has been impressive — and less so individually. It's more the mindset that they've brought to the team.
Williams, a 6-foot transfer from Indian Hills College in Iowa, has quickly developed into a leader both on and off the court. He ranks third on the team in scoring (10.8 ppg) and second in assists (2.5), and leads the league in steals during MAC play (2.3 spg).
“[Williams] has been a tremendous defensive player for us. He guards the other team's best player,” Senderoff said. “He also scores and does a lot of the little things that you don't see in the box score. He's competitive and makes the toughness plays.”
No play was tougher than the one Williams executed against incredible odds to beat host Ball State last weekend, when he threw a desperation 3-pointer hard off the glass, raced in to grab the rebound and make the game-winning putback in the final seconds of overtime.
Senderoff called it “a tremendous instinctual play,” one that only a heady and determined player like Williams could pull off.
Williamson is also a junior college transfer (Chipola College, Fla.) who has provided size (6-6, 200) and versatility at the wing. He ranks fifth on the team in scoring (7.7 ppg) and third in rebounding (3.8 rpg).
“CJ has been a little up and down, but he's had some great moments,” Senderoff said. “He does a little bit of everything — scores, rebounds, assists, guards guys that are bigger than him every game. He guards the other team's four man, but is able to switch onto point guards.”
Whittington's value rose significantly after starting post players Adonis De La Rosa (graduate transfer to Illinois) and Danny Pippen (season-ending knee injury) were lost during the offseason. The USC Upstate transfer has battled opposing centers while standing 6-8 and has more than held his own on both ends of the floor, ranking fourth on the team in scoring (9.8 ppg) and first by a wide margin in rebounding (7.8 rpg) despite averaging just 23 minutes per game.
“After a year sitting out [transfer rule], Phil probably didn't completely expect to have the role that he's had this year. Danny and Adonis were both here when he came with us,” Senderoff said. “He knew there would be a chance for him to play, but for him to have close to double the number of defensive rebounds anyone else has on our roster and be our main post presence … Phil has been huge for us.”
Friday night, Williams, Williamson and Whittington will receive their first taste of the bitter backyard rivalry between Kent State and Akron. Based on how they've handled their respective duties since the start of their initial season with the Flashes, Senderoff is confident that his key newcomers will stay poised when things get wild at Rhodese Arena.
“I think they'll be excited. But they'll be fine,” Senderoff said. “They've come in with a great mindset and understanding of the things you need to do to be a great team, and that's allowed them to have success.”