Kent State’s countdown to the NCAA tournament went three, two, one. It was anything but clockwork.
The Golden Flashes beat the teams with the top three seedings in the Mid-American Conference in succession last week to earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 2008. They will play UCLA in the first round Friday evening at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.
The Bruins (29-4) will be seeded third and the Golden Flashes (22-13) 14th, but the gap in confidence won’t be nearly as wide. Kent State has won nine of its last 10 games, and believes its magical run may not be ending.
“March is about incredible stories; March is about special plays and special times,” Kent State Coach Rob Senderoff said Monday during a phone interview, “and we’re going into the game hoping that we have more of our story to tell.”
If the Golden Flashes can’t reasonably contain high-scoring UCLA, the most compelling part of their narrative may be over. Senderoff said he had never seen a team with six players who average double figures in scoring, as the Bruins do, all those points adding up to a nation-leading 90.4 points per game.
“I know this: We don’t have 90 points on our roster,” Senderoff said, “so we’re not going to be able to win a game where UCLA scores 102 points like they did against USC,” in February.
Kent State features a top-heavy offense, with forward Jimmy Hall and guards Jaylin Walker and Deon Edwin averaging a combined 47.5 points per game. That accounts for 62.3% of the team’s 76.9 points per game. No one else on the team averages more than guard Kevin Zabo’s 5.4 points per game.
The Golden Flashes are brawny on the interior, averaging 14.97 offensive rebounds per game, second nationally behind North Carolina’s 15.79. But they’re not particularly accomplished on either side of the ball, their offensive efficiency ranking No. 169 out of 351 teams, according to analytics guru Ken Pomeroy, and their defensive efficiency ranking No. 131.
Kent State’s epic conference tournament run started a week ago on its home court. That’s where the sixth-seeded Golden Flashes outlasted Central Michigan and Marcus Keene, the nation’s leading scorer, rallying from an early 17-point deficit to prevail in overtime. Then it was on to a quarterfinal game in Cleveland, where Kent State toppled third-seeded Buffalo, the two-time defending MAC champion.
The Golden Flashes needed Walker’s floater with 4.1 seconds left to edge second-seeded Ohio, 68-66, in a semifinal before Walker scored a career-high 30 points to carry his team to a 70-65 victory over top-seeded Akron in the championship.
UCLA Coach Steve Alford said he just happened to watch most of Kent State’s most recent game, not knowing at the time that it would be the Bruins’ next opponent. The Golden Flashes certainly have UCLA’s full attention now.
The site of the first-round matchup will essentially make it a home game for UCLA, though the Golden Flashes don’t seem to care.
“They could have said that the game was going to be on the moon,” Senderoff said, “and we’d be excited to play.”
Kent State is widely remembered for the Ohio National Guard shootings in 1970 that killed four students and wounded nine others protesting the United States’ military operations in Cambodia. Senderoff suggested that the school would rather be known for its steadily improving academics and other renowned programs.
“Certainly, the shootings are something that are remembered on May 4 of every year, and I don’t think they’ll ever be forgotten,” Senderoff said, “but I also think the university has become one of the outstanding major universities in the country, certainly in the state of Ohio.”
Another upset Friday would make Kent State’s basketball team something else to behold.