So what will Kent State’s new women’s head basketball coach have to work with?
Quite a bit, I think.
There’s more talent on the roster than on any team since Bob Lindsay’s 2011-12 team, which started five seniors and went 20-11. There more be more than even that. It was far from Lindsay’s best team, but most of us would take anywhere near that record at this point.
It all depends on whether a new coach can put the pieces together.
Let’s look at the likely roster:
Rising junior Jordan Korinek was honorable mention all-conference. She’s on a scoring pace that’s similar to Lindsay Shearer and Dawn Zerman – two of the greats of Kent State women’s basketball history – and she’s done that on a team that scores far fewer points. Any coach would love to build a team around her.
McKenna Stephens, another rising junior, looked like an all-conference player herself in KSU’s MAC tournament loss. She seemed to hit every 12-foot jump shot she tried. She only got better as the season went along. I don’t think she’ll average near the 19 points she scored against Eastern Michigan, but if she could average 12, it would be huge.
Merissa Barber-Smith is the 6-foot-4 freshman who averaged six minutes a game this season. She saw some meaningful minutes late in the season and did OK in my eyes. Could she develop as well as Cici Shannon, KSU’s last 6-4 center? Barber-Smith may already be stronger than Shannon was. There’s potential, but I have no idea how much it will be realized.
Zenobia Bess is a 6-1 junior transfer from Western Illinois and a graduate of Gahanna Lincoln High School. Her statistics both places weren’t huge – she played sparingly on a poor college team and was on a high school team with five Division I recruits. But outgoing coach Danny O’Banion told me on several occasions that Bess was sometimes the best player on the court in practice and someone with a high basketball IQ. O’Banion had no reason just to say that; it wasn’t for an article. Bess could be an X-factory on next year’s teams.
Chelsi Watson is the 5-10 (probably closer to 5-8) post player who most often backed up Korinek. Very much a blue-collar player, the junior college transfer was a hard worker and decent rebounder who could score on offensive rebounds. She has the highest vertical leap on the team. But at her size and skill set, she’s a role player. Most of the playing time Bess gets is likely to come out of her minutes.
Lacy Miller and Savannah Neace are 6-3 post players. Miller, who will be a senior next season was a walk-on last season who got a leftover scholarship as a junior. She played the opposing team’s post in practice and was a popular member of a close-knit team. But it’s unlikely she’ll be a factor next season; I also don’t know the scholarship was a one-year deal (technically all scholarships are, and who knows what a new coach’s attitude will be). Neace is a 6-3 freshman who suffered concussion symptoms before the season and had disabling headaches throughout the year. She didn’t play a minute. I don’t know if she ever will be able to. Before the season, O’Banion called her a “developmental project.” She was clearly the fourth of KSU’s four scholarship recruits this season.
Wings and shooting guards
Tyra James was the third of O’Banion’s “big three” scorers at the start of the season. A redshirt freshman who missed all her first year with a knee injury, she did finish third on the team in scoring but spent most of the second half of the season as the team’s first player off the bench. When I saw her in Kent’s exhibition game and season opener, I thought we were seeing KSU’s first member of the all-MAC freshman team in a long time. But she was inconsistent and had a tendency to force action, make turnovers and get down on herself when she didn’t play well. Still her statistics actually were a little better than Korinek’s were as a freshman. It’s hard to imagine any success for this team if she doesn’t develop into an above-average player.
Larissa Lurken has been through it all. She has started almost every game since she arrived on campus three years ago and has gone from a freshman who stood in the quarter and shot three-pointers to the clear leader of the team. She became an improved and different player every season and actually scored more on drives and foul shots this season than she did on distance shooting. She’s been Kent State’s only real three-point threat, something that’s hurt her and the team as opponents concentrated on her and ignored the rest of the perimeter. Whether it’s opponents’ defense or her own style, she can be very inconsistent. Two games after her brilliant 37-point, 11-rebound game against Northern Illinois, she went 3 of 15 against Miami. Still, any coach should love her as a senior leader.
Alexa Golden could have been on an all-MAC freshman defensive team had there been such a thing. She was the key player in Kent’s pressure defense and match-up zone. She had at least two steals in 13 games and had five in one of the Miami games. Coaches had hopes she would score more, but she averaged 3.4 points a game. She did average 16 points a game in high school and showed some potential as a three-point shooter. A good coach can built a very solid team around people like her.
Keziah Lewis is the junior college transfer from New Zealand who averaged about 10 minutes a game. She was a big scorer in junior college but never scored much for Kent. I never quite figured out her role; her skill set is somewhat similar to Lurken’s and she usually spelled Lurken off the bench. Like Watson, I see her as a role player – not someone who will make or break the team like Stephens, James and Golden.
Ali Poole is the 5-10 guard from Carrollton High School who is – at this point – Kent’s only incoming freshman. She’s a big scorer – 18.5 points a game her senior year and more than 1,400 in high school. In a 100-29 tournament game, she scored 39 points, and had 13 rebounds, five assists, six steals and four blocks. She’s supposed to be a terrific leader. I’d say she’s Lurken’s heir apparent.
And point guard
And here is the position that will make or break Kent State and its new coach.
The Flashes definitely need a winner in this spot. O’Banion never found one. Her first (junior college transfer Ashley Evans) led the team in scoring (though at just 9 points) but wasn’t a great passer and had turnover problems. Her second – Mikell Chinn – was second in the MAC in assists but was such a minimal scoring threat that other teams barely guarded her.
This season we began with sophomore Naddiyah Cross, who played a lot last season when Chinn was hurt. Things started off well. She averaged about 10 points and five assists through KSU’s first five games and often drove aggressively to the basket. She seemed to be the key to the dribble-drive offense that worked well early in the season. Then I don’t know what happened. She never scored in double figures again. Her assist numbers were erratic – as many as 12, as few as 1 in games she played 30 minutes. She struggled with turnovers and fouls at times. I know she was banged up for a while during the conference season. But eventually she lost her starting job to…
Paige Salisbury, who was probably the only walk-on to start at point guard for Division I school. Salisbury was one of the best players in Brunswick High School history and might have gotten a Division II scholarship. Instead she walked on to Kent State last summer, paid her own way to summer school and became an integral part of the team. When she moved into the starting line-up, Kent started to play better – at least for a while. Salisbury isn’t fast and isn’t smooth, but she is steady. KSU’s offense – and, looking back, defense – worked better with her. Still, I just don’t see her as a long-term solution on a winning team.
Taylor Parker, a natural point guard from Detroit, is the fastest player on the team and showed potential a couple of times. But she often played out of control and made a lot of turnovers in the time she played. She’s a determined person – she tweeted early this month that she was going to take someone’s job away. In the best of worlds for her, a new coach could steady her.
Key person in this mix is probably Megan Carter, who was perhaps the team’s prize recruit this season. She was supposed to be as good on offense as Golden was on defense. She blew out her knee in the third game of the season and had her third ACL surgery (all on the same knee). She later had surgery to fix a shoulder she dislocated in high school and later reinsured in the Kent State weight room. She’s supposed to be on track to return to the court in June. Carter averaged 19 points a game in her senior year and had a reputation as a sure ball handler. Could she have the speed or Cross and the steadiness of Salisbury? Would she have made a big difference this year? Is she the key to next season? Ask me in December.
Will everyone be back?
A question during a coaching change is always: Are we going to lose players? O’Banion lost a key Lindsay recruit and eventually had a ton of transfers from Lindsay’s last recruiting class. She never at all clicked with the hand-picked point guard Lindsay was building the team around. And four of her own players – none of them key but a couple who would have helped – left the team after last season.
Assuming the new coach doesn’t want to come in an clean house or comes in and immediately alienates players, I don’t see a lot of movement.
Everything I heard – from watching Twitter, from coaches, from players – said that this was a very close team. I think that at the very least, they’ll stick together to play for each other, the way soldiers fight for their buddies in the foxhole as much as they fight for their country. I get the idea that Ali Poole fits in that group as well as a high school student can.
James, Stephens, Bess and Carter have already used their redshirt year either because of previous transfer or injury. That makes it very hard for them to leave. Lurken is going into her senior year and is almost through KSU’s nursing program. The junior college players can’t easily transfer.
I see no reason a coach would want to force someone out. I know of no bad apples. And what new players is he or she going to bring in on April 1? Most 2016 recruits are long-since locked up.
The players know all the stuff I’ve written. They know the considerable potential they have and that a new coach with a new system could bring that out. They know what Bob Boldon did at Ohio with an inherited team in a not-dissimilar situation.
As I’ve said, I don’t know if Savannah Neace will ever be physically able to play college basketball. Being walk-ons, Salisbury and Miller have less of a stake, but they’ve been an integral part of a tightly knit group.
I could be wrong, but I think the roster on opening night in fall will be pretty much what it is now.