A first look at 2017-18: Nobody can replace Lurken, so where’s the scoring?

Korinek 1000Forward Jordan Korinek scored her 1,000th point midway through the conference season and averaged 18 points a game in the MAC. If she can keep that average next season, she’ll end her career as the sixth leading scorer in Kent State history.

Before we go off into summer, let’s take a first look at next year’s women’s basketball team.

It will be easy to expect a lot. The Flashes are coming off of the their first divisional championship in 15 years. Under new coach Todd Starkey, they won more games than they had in the previous three years combined.

With a year of knowledge of Starkey’s system, the team should be even better at doing the things he wants done.

A team that had forgotten how to win now knows how it feels.

But…

The team graduated two starters and more than half of its points.

You don’t replace someone like Larissa Lurken, the MAC player of the year who had perhaps the best season in Kent women’s basketball history.

Nor do you easily replace McKenna Stephens, who decided against coming back for a redshirt senior season in order to start a career in public health. Stephens was Kent State’s third leading scorer and rebounding and led the MAC in three-point shooting percentage in conference play. She shared the team’s “most improved” award at its end-of-year banquet.

Also graduating was Chelsi Watson, one of the first post players off the bench, and Lacey Miller and Keziah Lewis. Neither Lewis nor Miller were a factor on the court last season.

Top returnee, of course, is senior forward Jordan Korinek, who was eighth in the conference in scoring (18.2 points) and 13th in rebounding (7.2) in MAC games. She was a second-team all-conference player.

Senior Naddiyah Cross, who started every game at point guard, returns, as does junior defensive specialist Alexa Golden, who started every game except three she missed because of injury. But neither averaged more than five points a game, though Golden showed some good three-point shooting in the last six games of the season.

Redshirt sophomore guard Megan Carter, who actually averaged more minutes than Cross in conference play, returns. She showed potential of being a consistent double-digit scorer.

Post players Merissa Barber-Smith and Zenobia Bess return, as do guards Ali Poole, Paige Salisbury and Taylor Parker. More on them — especially Barber-Smith and Poole — later.

(All this is assuming no one leaves the team. I haven’t heard rumblings, but we’ll find out for sure when summer classes start in a few weeks. The roster is usually updated then.)

Starkey has five incoming freshmen. He recruited the four he signed in November, he told me last fall, as potential starters their first year on campus. That was back when the coach he no idea how much talent his team might have; at this time last season, the Flashes were projected to finish last in the conference.

A position-by-position look (all of the classes are the year in school they’ll be next season):

POST PLAYERS

It starts with Korinek. It took the 6-2 forward the non-conference season to figure out her  role in Starkey’s system, which involved a great deal more motion on offense and communication on defense. But over the last 20 games, Korinek was one of the best players in the conference. She’s very likely to average between 18 and 20 points a game next season.

I suspect that Starkey and his assistants will spend a chunk of the summer trying to retool the offense to put Korinek and Barber-Smith on the court at the same time, something that rarely happened last season. Starkey credited junior Barber-Smith, the tallest player on the team at 6-4, with clearly making the difference in three conference victories in which she came off the bench. In KSU’s WNIT game against Michigan and its all-Big Ten center, Barber-Smith had 8 points and 13 rebounds.

But overall Barber-Smith averaged just 3 points in six minutes a game in conference play. She didn’t get a lot of playing time behind Korinek, who was essential to the team’s game plan.

Can they play together? During her freshman year, Korinek played alongside Cici Shannon, another 6-4 center who was a third-team all-MAC player. Starkey is an extremely good X’s and O’s coach; if he thinks the team will be better with the two in the lineup, they’ll be there.

Behind them is 6-foot redshirt senior Bess. Former coach Danny O’Banion once told me she could be the team’s best player in practice during the year she had to sit out after transferring from Illinois State. But she played relatively little last season, averaging 0.8 points in five minutes a game during the conference season.

The Flashes have two incoming freshmen post players. 6-3 Amanda Sape of Bloomfield Hills (Michigan) High School averaged close to a double-double for three years in high school and showed she could dominate a game at times. Sape was also a top shot putter through her first three years of high school and looks the part. Nobody is going to push her around in the post. But she’ll be competing with Korinek and Barber-Smith for playing time. I have no idea how much she’ll get into games.

KSU’s other freshman post is 6-1 Kennedy Roberts-Rosser of Cincinnati, who averaged 8.4 points and 4,3 rebounds as a high school senior. In KSU’s announcement of her signing in April, Starkey said she could develop into an “impact player in the MAC.” Maybe. Late signees usually are late for a reason. I suspect she will be a project.

WINGS

Losing Lurken takes 23.5 points out of the Kent State line-up. No player ever scored more for the Flashes, and it’s hard to imagine anyone currently on the roster making that up by herself. (Of course Lurken wasn’t that kind of player before this season; she averaged 13 points a game as a junior.)

KSU other starting guards have not been big scorers. 5-fot-9 Golden averaged 4.4 points but shot 47.1 percent from three-point distance (though taking just 34 shots) in conference season. She was in the line-up because she was the best defender on the team and a solid rebounder for a guard (fourth on the team at 4.2 per game). She averaged about 15 points a game in high school; I’d be happy if she averaged 8 next season.

Sophomore Poole, who is 5-11, was a big scorer in high school and scored in double figures three times in her freshman season, including 19 points on 5-for-5 three-point shooting at Wright State. Poole’s playing time dropped in conference season as Starkey shortened his bench. Lurken several times said Poole reminded her of herself as a younger player. She could make a jump in production.

The wild card among returning players is 5-11 redshirt sophomore Tyra James, who missed last season with a knee injury. She was hurt in early fall, and Starkey has never seen her in a regular season practice. It was James’ second knee injury; surgery on her other knee kept her from playing her first year on campus. But in the one year she did play, she was KSU’s third-leading scorer. She scored 90 more points during her freshman season than Lurken did in hers (and 60 more than Korinek). James’ surgery came before last season started; she was moving well every time I saw her during the season. I could easily see her being a 15-point-per-game scorer — if she fits into Starkey offensive and defensive systems.

On paper, a very similar player to James is Monique Smith, the 5-10 incoming freshman from San Diego. Also a wing, Smith averaged a double-double her junior and senior years and close to that (8.5 rebounds) her sophomore year. She also led her high school team in assists, steals and blocks. If she can translate those statistics, she could be the first Kent player on the MAC all-freshman team since Chenel Harris in 2008. But she has to beat out James and Golden for playing time. I can see KSU playing a big team with Korinek and Barber-Smith and a smaller team with three wings — Smith, James and Golden.

Incoming freshman Kasey Toles looks to fit more in the No. 2 guard spot behind Golden. The 5-foot-9 Toles, sister of KSU assistant coach Morgan Toles, was an all-regional guard in metro Atlanta two years running with solid but not spectacular statistics. She averaged in the range of 13 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists both her junior and senior year and helped her high school team to the state semifinals this season.

POINT GUARDS

KSU has five players on the roster who have played significant time at the point in high school and college.

The key ones are Cross, who has started 64 games in three seasons, and Carter, who became de facto co-starter at point during the conference season. At this time last year the position looked like a major weakness; both players made significant progress last season under assistant coach Toles, who was one of the better point guards in the SEC and Atlantic 10 in her playing career (she transferred from Auburn to Florida State after two years).

The 5-foot-6 Cross is a solid ball handler but not a scorer; she has averaged about 4 points a game in three years. Carter developed into a significant scoring option as the conference season went along. She hit a game-winning basket against Bowling Green and took a shot at the buzzer that could have tied KSU’s MAC tournament loss at Toledo. She averaged 7 points a game and scored in double figures six times in conference play. She scored almost as many points as Lurken did her freshman year.

Carter can play the No. 2 guard as well as the point; she and Cross played together a number of times in the MAC season.

Other returning players with point experience are juniors Salisbury and Parker. Both averaged fewer than six minutes a game; Salisbury, a walk-on, played twice as many minutes as Taylor, some of it at shooting guard.

Incoming point guard Erin Thames on paper looks a lot like Cross did when she was an freshman. Thames is about the same size at 5-5 and wasn’t a scorer in high school (7.7 points her senior year). She has a reputation as a good floor leader but averaged only 1.8 assists. We’ll need to see her on the court before we know where she fits in.

THE OUTLOOK

Despite their first-place finish in the MAC East, I don’t expect the Flashes to be favored to repeat. Nor would I be surprised if they contended again.

A great deal depends on whether James, Poole and Smith can begin to make up for the points lost from Lurken. All have the potential to be 15-point-a-game scorers. Two of them together might well approach the 23 points a game Lurken scored.

Assuming Barber-Smith starts alongside Korinek, you’ll see a rather different dynamic in the post. At 6-4, Barber-Smith will be a stronger interior defender (she blocked more shots in seven minutes a game than Stephens did in 28). I could see her averaging 8 points and 8 rebounds a game. But Stephens could stretch the floor and score from anywhere. You may see Korinek (and James, Poole and Smith in a smaller lineup) take that role.

But if Barber-Smith develops and the Flashes can get 10 to 15 solid minutes from Sape and Bess, the post ought to be OK.

Golden has been a remarkably consistent player for her first two years. If she can step up her scoring to 7 or 8 points a game, and the Flashes can get 10 good minutes from Toles, Poole  and Carter at the No. 2 guard, that position would be solid.

Point guard, I suspect, will be similar to last season, with Cross and Carter being better for the year under Starkey’s system. Carter could very well average 12 points a game. All they need from Salisbury, Parker and Thames is the potential for five OK minutes of emergency guard play.

The team should have more depth: Starkey essentially used a six-player rotation as the conference season went on. I suspect it will be closer to eight next February.

 

The team averaged 71 points a game last season (75 in conference play) and gave up 70 (71 in the MAC).

As hard as Starkey pushes on defense, I suspect points allowed will decline to 65 to 68 next season in the second year in his system. Key again is the wing. Lurken developed into a solid defender and led the team in blocked shots. James, Poole and Smith are unproven.

So the Flashes need to replace about 32 of the 36 points they’re losing from Lurken and Stephens.

  • Korinek is very likely to equal or improve her 18-point average.
  • Golden and Carter are likely to give them 5 more points a game between them.
  • Barber-Smith, Bess and Sape should provide at least 12 of the 15 points KSU got from Stephens and her back-ups last season.
  • That leaves 15 to 20 points a game from James, Poole and Smith. Or a bigger jump from Carter or Korinek. Or some surprise scoring from Cross, Toles and Thames.

The team will certainly look different. The 2016-17 team centered on Lurken, her ability to shoot from outside or drive to the basket, draw fouls and make more free throws than any player in Division I history. She showed amazing consistency, scoring at least 18 points in 28 of Kent’s 32 games. Lurken was never a loud leader, but that kind of play gave her teammates a confidence that will be hard to replace.

Starkey and Lurken together built last year’s team — Starkey by bringing a system that could win, and Lurken by leading her teammates in executing it.

Next year’s team will be built by Starkey and Korinek — and probably two other players. Who those people are and how much they can do will determine the season.

 

 

 

 

 

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