Kent State guard Michael Porrini jumps against the Akron defense during the March 2 game in the MAC center. The Flashes lost the game against Akron 61-55. Photo by Brian Smith.
Kent State basketball has enjoyed an elite run over the past 14 seasons.
But it was the season exactly 10 years ago that left a lasting legacy that remains unmatched.
The 2011-12 version of Kent State men’s basketball burdens lofty expectations with all of last year’s team returning minus one, Rodriguez Sherman. The hype and excitement surrounding this team may sound familiar to that of another memorable team.
The 2001-02 Flashes achieved the single-greatest run in school history by advancing all the way to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Men’s Tournament. It was here that one more Cinderella story separated them from the unthinkable: the Final Four.
So the journey begins, exactly a decade ago.
Much like the current team, the 2001-02 Flashes were returning most of the previous year’s team, which was highlighted by four seniors: Trevor Huffman, Demetric Shaw, Andrew Mitchell and Eric Thomas.
They also brought a wealth of postseason experience. The Flashes were coming off the momentum of the previous season where they qualified for the NCAA Tournament and achieved the program’s first NCAA tournament win before falling in the second round.
There was just one uncertainty: Head coach Gary Waters, who helped build the early foundation for the program’s success, left for the coaching vacancy at Rutgers University. The Flashes would call on the services of Stan Heath, who had previously been an assistant coach under Tom Izzo at Michigan State.
“In the preseason that year, everybody was really just trying to adjust to a new coaching 1,946 staff,” Eric Haut said. Haut played on the 2001-02 team and is currently an assistant coach for Kent State.
Haut said the one thing Heath did upon his arrival was bring in Antonio Gates to join an already veteran lineup. He said throughout the preseason it was about adjusting to new personnel and learning a new way of doing things.
“Coach Heath was tough,” Haut said. “He brought a Michigan-State-style preseason conditioning plan and it was tough and it was difficult. It was good for us.”
Demetric Shaw said one of the things that helped during the transition was that Heath was more open to ideas from players. Shaw played two seasons at Kent State from 2000-02 and won MAC Defensive Player of the Year in each one.
“He allowed us to flourish as leaders because he had a team full of guys who had been used to winning,” Shaw said. “We had grown accustomed to it to the point of demanding it from ourselves.”
“Coach Waters, along with Coach Heath were both a big part of our success,” Shaw said. “Waters laid foundation of a mentality that Heath nourished even greater than it had been.”
Despite the coaching change, Haut said the team’s ultimate goal was to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and strive to at least advance to the Sweet Sixteen; however, its first goal was to win a MAC Championship and go undefeated in conference play.
“We wanted to go somewhere we hadn’t been yet,” Haut said.
Shaw said the team believed it has a chance to do something special, and it set out to prove it every day. “We thrived off being underdogs,” he said. “We were just a group of guys who were more determined than everyone else.”
The culmination of the Flashes season was not indicative of how it began. On Jan. 9, 2002, the Buffalo Bulls defeated Kent State 66-65, which dropped the Flashes to just 9-5.
However, former Kent State Athletic Director Laing Kennedy recalls an early season meeting he had with Stan Heath after the Flashes got off to the slow start. He gave Heath his backing and gave him the green light to make whatever changes to the lineup or personnel that he deemed necessary.
Little did the Kent State faithful know that the loss at Buffalo would be the final time it watched its beloved team lose until nearly two-and-a-half months later.
“We didn’t even think about the NCAA Tournament until the MAC Tournament because we had some tough games down the stretch as we tried to close out the conference,” Haut said.
Shaw stressed the benefit of the team’s ability to thrive in the game’s most critical moments, and he felt the Flashes could challenge anyone.
The Elite Eight run by Kent State not only put the basketball program in the national spotlight, but it also opened new opportunities for the university as a whole.
During Kent State’s historic season, the school benefited from increased game attendance and exposure. “It was an incredible environment,” Kennedy said. “We had standing room only in our building, and most games were sold out. It was an environment the likes of which we hadn’t ever experienced before.”
Kennedy said when the season began to pick up in January and February, the team’s success began to attract the community of Kent. As the team slowly started to make a run and get on a winning streak, the community viewed each game as a must-see event.
“No words can illustrate how electric not only our campus and city were, but the entire state of Ohio was embracing us and cheering for us,” Shaw said. “We were the last Ohio school standing.”
Kennedy said the community especially embraced the Flashes after they defeated Pittsburgh to advance to the Elite Eight.
“People have told me who were watching that game downtown that it was just a glow, just a big red glow of happiness,” Kennedy said. “Everybody poured out into the streets celebrating.”
Kent State instantly became the poster program in the MAC following the season. “By going to the Elite Eight, we were able to bring significant revenue to the conference, which was split evenly to all institutions,” Kennedy said.
Different economic estimates and studies were conducted in order to measure the monetary impact the tournament run had on the university and surrounding community. “We estimated that it had in excess of $20 million impact to this community in terms of direct and indirect benefit,” Kennedy said.
Kent State also experienced a 13 percent increase in admissions applications for the 2002-03 academic year. Kennedy emphasized the importance of all the media exposure that was given to the team throughout the season and especially in the tournament.
“It was awesome to see the team always on ESPN as if we are Duke, North Carolina or Kentucky, especially when we went further than those guys that year,” Shaw said.
“You cannot buy that,” Kennedy said. “You cannot buy that economic value. The national branding of Kent State, and the logo was out there every day and every night.”
Back to Today
For those who compare this year’s team to the 2002 team, Kennedy said he definitely sees a lot of similarities. “It’s kind of scary talking about it because it’s a senior team with a lot of depth, and when you think of our 2002 team, it was a senior team with a lot of depth, too.”
In 2002, the Flashes achieved success under first year head coach Stan Heath, and this year’s team will also showcase another first year head coach, Rob Senderoff, who was promoted to the position in the off-season. He previously worked as the associate head coach on Geno Ford’s staff, and Senderoff instantly became the top candidate after Ford’s departure to Bradley University.
Assistant coach Eric Haut said the comparisons are accurate, and there are similarities between the two teams. But the current staff is still searching for the one quality that the 2002 team possessed that set them apart from other teams.
“The one thing that team had that we are trying to develop here, and I think we are getting there, is that team had a killer instinct,” he said. “If we got up 10, we were going to beat you by 30, and that is something we are trying to instill in our guys, and we know they have it in them.”
The Cinderella Story Comes to a Close
After the 2001-02 Flashes captured the MAC Tournament Championship, the team qualified for the NCAA tournament where they upset Oklahoma State 69-61 in the opening game, setting up a second round match up against Alabama.
Haut said it was the Alabama game where people started to take Kent State seriously as a legitimate and dangerous tournament team.
“They were the SEC champions, and we were up by 20 the entire game, and I think that is when it kind of shocked everybody,” he said.
Kent State would provide one more memory for its loyal following by upsetting heavily favored Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16 and advancing to the Elite Eight. Shaw said the Pittsburgh game could have defined the team’s legacy best.
As the game neared the end of regulation, the score was tied. After a tough call didn’t go in favor Kent State, Pittsburgh had a chance to take the last shot. The Flashes’ defense rose to the occasion one more time and forced the game into overtime. It was all Kent State in the overtime period, and when the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read Kent State 78, Pittsburgh 73.
Shaw remembers the closing moments of that game quite vividly.
“Andrew Mitchell and I are on the line talking about which one of our faces are going to be on the USA Today for winning, as he smoothly swishes two free throws to give us the lead and basically the game,” Shaw said. “We walked off with the win, not celebrating, but expecting to win.”
“We could have easily folded under the circumstances,” Mitchell said. “But we held it together and made a mark for the mid majors.”
On March 23, 2002, Indiana outlasted Kent State for an 81-69 victory, which ended the Flashes’ championship hopes and in the process, snapped the team’s 21-game winning streak that dated back to early January.
“We clawed throughout that game and fought like champs but were outdone,” Shaw said.
The excitement and sense of achievement surrounding the team was undeniable.
“It was just a testament to the value of what a strong athletic program can do for a community and a university,” Kennedy said. “It was just the most exciting experience I’ve personally been involved with.”
Haut said when the outside community sees a team like Kent State having success, it wants to be a part of it. “It gave people a sense of pride in the basketball program, and it gave people a reason to come to Kent State,” he added.
“It was far beyond what anyone could have imagined and that made me smile and still keeps me smiling to this day,” Mitchell said.
Shaw remembers an unexpected gesture that occurred right after the Flashes were finally defeated by Indiana, which could some up the significance and magnitude of they had been able to accomplish the best.
“The sold-out Rupp Arena, which had maybe 3,000 Kent State fans and around 20,000 Indiana fans in a sea of red, began to stand to their feet, not for their team, but we received a standing ovation from the partisan Indiana crowd,” he said. “It showed the respect that we garnered as competitors and proved that we were indeed special.”blog comments powered by Disqus