The women start play Friday in the toughest tournament in the country outside of the NCAA championship.
They start with the No. 5 team in the country, 4-1 Baylor, which was 36-2 a year ago and has won two national championships.
Why play a team like Baylor?
Why play in a tournament like the Gulf Coast Classic, which features four teams in the top 18 in the country and seven other teams that won at least 26 games a year ago.
Why do it when you’re a new coach who’s inherited a team that was 6-23 a year ago?
Here is coach Todd Starkey’s reasoning, gleaned from multiple interviews and press conferences since he was named to the job in April.
- He wanted to set a tone for the program as one that wanted to complete with the best.
- After playing in a field the one in Florida — and playing two Big Ten teams on the road in December, “Nobody in the conference is going to throw anything at us that we haven’t seen.”
- Games like these will help Kent’s RPI, which was 318 of 349 Division I teams a year ago, and the Mid-American Conference RPI, which has been so low for decades that the league hasn’t had two teams in the NCAA tournament since 1996. (RPI is a way of ranking teams based on their own record (25 percent), their opponents’ record (50 percent) and opponents’ opponents’ record (25 percent). The NCAA selection committee uses it as a factor in deciding who makes the 64-team tournament field.
- It’s provides something that players will always be able to remember — that they played against the best.
The dangers — one that Starkey admits — is that losing to such teams can damage his players’ confidence. He says it’s up to him and his assistants to make sure that doesn’t happen — that the Flashes learn the right lessons.
Kent State and Baylor open the tournament at 11 a.m. Friday. All the teams will play three games in three days, with winners and loser playing.
Baylor has it all. It has four starters back from a team that was 36-2 last season. It has a two-time all-American in 5-11 forward Nina Davis. It has senior guard Alexis Jones, a transfer from Duke, who is making 55 percent of her three-point shots. It has 6-7 sophomore Kanani Davis, who averages a double-double (16 points, 11 rebounds) off the bench. It has last year’s No. 1 high school recruit in 6-4 forward Lauren Cox.
The Bears own two national championships (2005 and 2012), both under current head coach Kim Mulkey. She’s second among the nation’s active women’s coaches with with a 83.7 winnning percentage. (First is Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma at 87.7.)
In five games this season, they’ve scored more than 100 points three times. The game they lost was to defending national champion Connecticut — at Connecticut. Score was 72-61.
Best I can tell, Baylor will be the highest-ranked team a Kent State women’s team has ever played. Bowling Green and Toledo in the MAC have been ranked several times when KSU played them. They’ve played Iowa State, Penn State and Texas A@M in three of their NCAA appearances. (They beat A&M, then ranked No. 25, in the first round of the 1996 tournament
Other teams in the tournament:
No. 8 Ohio State (3-1 and 26-8 last season).
No. 11 Syracuse (3-1 and national NCAA runner-up last season with a 30-8 record).
No. 18 DePaul (3-0 and 27-9 a year ago).
Western Kentucky ((2-1 and 27-7).
George Washington (3-1 and 26-7)
Florida Gulf Coast, the host team (2-2 and 33-6).
Kent State is also 2-2.
The lowest RPI last season of the field was Florida Gulf Coast. Its was 71. Second lowest was Western Kentucky, which was 38). RPI numbers so far this season are pretty meaningless so early.
The winner of the KSU-Baylor game will play DePaul or Western Kentucky Saturday; the two losers will play.
Sunday’s opponent can be any of the other four teams, depending on results of their games.
Kent State has lost two games in a row after winning its first two. It fell to Robert Morris 68-64 in overtime at KSU and lost its first road game at Detroit Mercy Monday, 73-52.
Larissa Lurken is leading the Flashes in scoring at 21.5 points a game despite a five-point game at Detroit Mercy. She also leads in rebounding at 7.5 a game. Chelsi Watson is second in rebounding at 7.3 after a 12 rebound game in Detroit. Jordan Korinek, last year’s leading scorer at 15.5 points a game, is averaging 10.3 but scored just 7 points in each of the games against Bradley, and Detroit Mercy. She had 20 against Eastern Kentucky. Naddiyah Cross has 21 total assists in the three games.
Baylor’s Davis is the Big 12’s preseason player of the year, the third such opponent for the Flashes. Kent State also faced the Ohio Valley Conference’s Jalen O’Bannion (Eastern Kentucky) and the Horizon’s League’s Anna Niki Stamolaprou.
Kent State is the only school that had teams in both the men’s and women’s Gulf Coast tournaments. It wasn’t planned that way. The men’s tournament was set when Starkey was putting together his schedule, and the Florida tournament had an opening in the time frame he was trying to fill.
The KSU men’s and women’s teams separately served Thanksgiving dinners at homeless shelters in Florida.i think they were to have dinner together later in the day.
Baylor and Kent State have played once before. And try this:
Kent State won 81-75 in the 1997 Borden’s Lobo Classic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
That team went on to go 23-7 and 18-0 in the MAC. Players on that team included Carrie Templin, Dawn Zerman and Julie Studer.
To follow the game:
Video is on the tournament YouTube channel at https://m.youtube.com/bdglobalsportsnetwork.
Audio is on 1350 AM WARF at http://sportsradio1350.iheart.com. (The Kent State football game will be on WHLO and Golden Flash iHeart Radio, which usually broadcast the women’s games.)
Live statistics are at http://www.statbroadcast.com/events/tournament.php?tid=438.
Live Twitter feed is @kentstatewbb.