Larissa Lurken and what was left of the net after KSU’s 80-71 victory over Buffalo.
So, fellow women’s basketball fans, how the heck did did this happen?
How did a Kent State team that’s struggled horribly for five years and was picked a distant last in the MAC, win the East Division and get the third seed in the tournament?
To understand, let’s look at six key moments:
- Former coach Danny O’Banion meets Larissa Lurken. This season’s story starts when former coach O’Banion, then in her first season at Kent State, saw Larissa Lurken playing AAU basketball in a Chicago tournament. O’Banion liked Lurken’s play; Lurken visited campus twice and signed on to the coach’s first true recruiting class. (O’Banion was hired in April — too late to do serious recruiting for her first year.)
It was Lurken’s only Division I offer. Four years later, she is the leading candidate for player of the year in the MAC.
A year later O’Banion persuaded Jordan Korinek of Akron St. Vincent St. Mary — rated the best post player in Ohio Division II — to choose the Flashes over the University of Akron. Later that year McKenna Stephens of Uniontown Lake High School made the same decision when she transferred from Michigan State.
A year after that, Megan Carter of Farmington Hills High School in Michigan chose KSU over Central Michigan, another top MAC school.
“You have to remember that we didn’t bring in a single player on this team,” current coach Todd Starkey told me back in December, when we first got the idea that this team would be a lot better than it had been. “Coach Danny and coach Geoff (Lanier, O’Banion’s top assistant) deserve a lot of credit.”
O’Banion’s recruiting was far from perfect. The three players she brought in with Lurken didn’t make it past their sophomore year. Korinek’s class lost two before the end of their freshman seasons (one before classes even started).
But besides Lurken, Korinek, Stephens and Carter, she brought in point guard Naddiyah Cross, who has started 62 games over three years, and guard Alexa Golden, one of the better defensive players in the conference.
2. Starkey arrives as head coach in April 2016. Starkey had been assistant coach at Indiana for two years; before that, he had been a successful head coach at Division II Lenoir-Ryne University in North Carolina. He was actually the third person to be offered the Kent State job; Youngstown State coach John Barnes and an another unidentified Division I head coach turned the job down.
Starkey installed a new offense, emphasizing an aggressive, up-tempo offensive, and a new defense, built around half-court man-to-man principles. He preached defense and defense and defense to his team and anyone else he talked to.
It obviously worked. I’m still not completely sure why it worked so well. O’Banion and Lanier knew basketball; both had been assistants at good programs —Minnesota and Memphis for O’Banion, Boston College, Akron and Ohio for Lanier.
Both landed as more prestigious programs than Kent State. O’Banion went back to her associate head coaching job at Memphis (14-16 and tied for fifth in the American Athletic Conference this season). Lanier became an assistant at Cincinnati (15-14 and also tied for fifth in the American Athletic). That’s No. 1 Connecticut’s league, by the way.
But their teams had Kent State never found an offensive or defensive identity. Last year’s team used a dribble-drive offense that was ninth of the MAC’s 12 teams in scoring. It started with a match-up zone defense that was 11th in the conference in defense. (The team started to play better when it began to use a man-to-man defense in the second half to the conference season.)
Starkey has been an outstanding X’s and O’x coach. His team is scoring 10 points a game more than last year’s. He has often talked about plays with several multiple options for scorers; Lurken says that wasn’t often the case in previous seasons.
The team has made mid-game adjustments it couldn’t seem to before (something Starkey has repeatedly praised his players for).
Defensively the team is giving up about the same number of points as it did a year ago (against a significantly tougher schedule). But Starkey’s defenses seem more sophisticated. His eyes light up when he talks about “defensive angles” and beating opponents to spots on the floor.
At one game early in the season, Kent switched from man to a man-to-man in the middle of a possession. Starkey has played more zone defense than I would have expected from my early conversations with him, but the zones have some match-up quality to them and can be effective against the three-point shots.
And when he’s unhappy about something after a game, it’s almost always defense. He is constantly on his players about talking to each other on the court on defense. When they do that, he says, they can be pretty good.
Try this statistic: When Kent State holds teams under 70 points, the Flashes are 16-1. The loss was by three points in overtime to Robert Morris in the third game of the season.
3. The Flashes start 2-0. KSU opened by beating Bradley by 25 points and Eastern Kentucky by 13 — margins higher than in all but three wins in four previous years. Right then the team had to know that something was working, that things were different.
4. Kent State faces the lions in Florida. When Kent State announced it was playing in the Gulf Coast Showcase over Thanksgiving, I shuddered. The seven other teams in the tournament all won at least 26 games last season. Kent State lost 23. (“Some people thought I was crazy,” Starkey said last fall. “Sometimes I thought I was, too.”
The team could have gotten destroyed in every game and lost any confidence it had.
Instead, the opposite happened. Kent State lost to Baylor — now 28-2 and the No. 2 team in the country — 84-42. That actually was closer than any non-Power 5 team Baylor played all season. It was closer than Kansas of the Big 12 did in either of its two games.
Then in what I think may be the most important two games of the season, Kent State lost to Western Kentucky in overtime and beat Florida Gulf Coast. Western Kentucky won the Conference USA title this season. It’s 24-6 with an RPI of 40. Florida Gulf Coast is 22-8 and ranked 19th in the last Mid Major top 25.
I think it was then that the Flashes started to realize that that they could beat a good team and, perhaps, be a good team.
5. Kent State rights the ship. When the Flashes played at Eastern Michigan Jan. 7, they had lost four games in a row to good teams — Iowa and Minnesota of the Big Ten, then Central Michigan and Ball State, teams that eventually finished 1-2 in the MAC. Eastern Michigan had beaten KSU 11 straight times and knocked them out of the conference tournament in the first round the last two years.
The Flashes had no trouble, winning 86-67. Eastern, hard hit by graduation, transfers and a coaching change, turned out to be the worst team in the league. But the Flashes’ confidence had to be a little shaky going into the game.
6. The big, big upset in Athens. Ohio had been the class of the conference for two years, going 51-9 and winning two regular-season titles. At the time of the Kent State game, the Bobcats had lost two home games in the three years. Kent State beat them, 68-65, and at that point we started to realize that the Flashes could beat any team in the MAC.
Since then, I’ve wondered whether the Ohio win was a fluke, that the bubble would break, that the Flashes would start losing games they should win.
But they haven’t. Come from 14 points behind to win at Western Michigan? Sure. Beat Toledo in Kent? OK. Sweep Bowling Green, Akron, Miami? Yep. Beat Ohio again? Done.
The Flashes are 11-2 since that first win at Ohio, losing only at Northern Illinois and Buffalo. They avenged the loss to the Bulls with a 80-71 victory in Kent Saturday and slipped past NIU into the third seed in the conference tournament.
Look at the lineup. If…
Lurken doesn’t, as she put it early in the season, “reinvent herself” into the best player in the conference…
…Or Korinek doesn’t find her niche in Starkey’s system and average 19 points a game in the conference season (vs. 11 before Christmas)…
…Or Stephens develop into a scorer and rebounder any team would want…
…Or Golden start to provide some offense and continue to be the Flashes’ defensive stopper…
…Or Carter start to give Kent State a second threat from the perimeter…
…the Flashes are still mired in the second division.
Going into the season, I thought they had a chance win 10 to 12 games.
I hoped they would hit 15 and a .500 season.
I never dreamed of a 20-win season and a division championship.
Who would have believed it?