James, Smith and Barber-Smith: three new keys to the 2017-18 season

Tyra James watched from the bench as she rehabbed an injured knee last season. Merissa Barber-Smith averaged just seven minutes a game. Monique Smith was playing high school basketball in San Diego.

This season the three of them will have a big impact on whether the Flashes approach the 19-win season they had last season.

They’re the second set of players I see as key to the 2017-18 season.

Tyra James, 5-11 sophomore wing/guard

Tyra James first season at Kent State ended with a blown-out knee before she played in a game.

Her third season ended with a blowout of her other knee before an official practice.

In between, she was the Flashes’ third-leading scorer.

Her role on this year’s team could have a lot to say about how well her team defends its MAC East title.

Before James injury in 2016, former coach Danny O’Banion would mention her in the same breath as Jordan Korinek, now a three-year starter with more than 1,000 points. In her one year on the court (O’Banion’s last season), James showed she could do many things well. She could score from the outside and inside, she could help bring the ball up against a press, she could rebound. In two games that went down to the last seconds, it was James who took the last shot for the Flashes.

What James didn’t show was consistency. At times she tried so hard to make a play that unhappy things happened. She led the team in turnovers, splitting her time between starting and being the first player off the bench.

Before this fall, second-year coach Todd Starkey really didn’t know where James fit into his plans and system. He’s still working on that. James is a natural wing guard — and that spot is open with the graduation of Larissa Lurken, last year’s MAC player of the year. But Starkey also has had James working at other positions, including a point guard/forward spot. “She can do a lot of things for us,” he said.

Monique Smith, 5-10 freshman guard

One reason James may not play exclusively at the wing is the presence of Monique Smith, who looks to be the top freshman in Starkey’s first recruiting class.

In every interview I’ve had with Starkey so far, he’s mentioned Smith as possibly the best rebounder on the team — high praise on a team with two returning senior forward and a 6-4 junior center.

“The best rebounders can rebound outside of their airspace,” Starkey said at press day. “Monique does that better than anyone on our team. She can rebound the ball all over the floor.” That, Starkey said, will mean more possessions on the offensive end and more fast breaks from the defensive end.

He also said Smith can be the best finisher on the team on drives to the basket and is big enough and quick enough to defend almost every position. Starkey also agrees that Smith is still adjusting to the college game — she played mostly at the post in high school in San Diego, where she averaged a double-double for three years.

Merissa Barber-Smith, 6-4 junior center

Starkey credits Barber-Smith, who averaged just 7 minutes a game last season, with making the difference in four Kent State victories last season.

If Barber-Smith doesn’t average at least double that number of minutes, there are likely going to be a lot more than four games the Flashes don’t win. I can easily imagine her averaging more than 20 minutes a game.

At 6-4, Barber-Smith is the tallest player on the Kent State roster. She seems to play her best against tall, physical post players. She had 11 rebounds in 15 minutes at Western Michigan, one of the MAC’s best rebounding teams. She had 13 rebounds in 19 minutes against Michigan and its all-Big Ten center. Those are the kind of teams forward Jordan Korinek, Kent’s best returning player, struggles against. I strongly suspect Starkey will find a way to put both Korinek and Barber-Smith on the floor against teams like that, and that will be a tough match-up for the other side.

(There’s a very nice story on Barber-Smith’s rugged road to her place on the Kent State roster on KentWired, the website of the Kent Stater.)

Tomorrow: Megan Carter, Ali Poole and Naddiyah Cross: two guards who can put up points and one who can get them the ball.

The recruiting front

The Flashes have added their second verbal commitment for the 2019 recruiting class — current high school juniors.

The newest is Katie Shumate of Newark High School, who tweeted  that she would join the Flashes. Shumate, a 5-10 guard, was a first-team all-Ohio last season on a high school school team that was rated No. 1 on the state for much of the season. (Newark lost its only game in the state semifinals.) Her father is her coach and was Division I coach of the year.

Earlier guard Clare Kelly of Olmstead, a second-team all-stater, had announced earlier that she had committed to the KSU class of 2019.

The Flashes 2018 recruiting class should be announced today. The Flashes have verbal commitments from five players, including all-staters from Ohio, Massachusetts and Virginia.

Coaches aren’t allowed by the NCAA to comment on recruits until they sign formal letters of intent.



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