A year ago Kent State faced such a powerful field in a Thanksgiving tournament that I feared it would destroy its season.
Instead, it made it.
The Flashes faced Baylor, then No. 4 in the country. They lost by 40 points, but they weren’t destroyed. Then they took Western Kentucky, eventually champion of Conference USA, to overtime. Then they beat Florida Gulf Coast, eventual champion of the Atlantic Sun Conference.
And then they went on to go 19-13 and win the MAC East.
This Thanksgiving Kent State will try to do it again.
The Flashes open the Play4Kay Showcase Thursday night in Las Vegas against No. 14 Stanford, a Final Four team a year ago.
Friday they’ll play the winner or loser of a game between Gonzaga (seventh in the current Mid-Major Top 25) and Belmont (eighth in the same poll).
Saturday they’ll play No. 21 DePaul, No. 9 Ohio State, Memphis or Florida Gulf Coast (No. 2 in the Mid-Major Poll).
There’s even an interesting match-up between the two that aren’t ranked. Kent State (3-1) could face Memphis (1-3) on Saturday. Memphis’s associate head coach is Danny O’Banion, the former KSU head coach whose contract wasn’t renewed in 2016 after she went 18-95 in four years.
“Playing good competition, win or lose, helps you out,” Kent State coach Todd Starkey said on KSU’s Flashtalk broadcast last week. “For me, it’s a matter of iron sharpens iron. You play against the best, and you get a true sense of who you are and where to make improvements.
“A lot of times playing a lot of lesser opponents is fool’s gold. You can get the false sense that you’re something that you’re not. I’ve always liked challenging myself against the best. It helps the profile of the school, it helps the players have pride that we’re playing Power 5 Schools and creates excitement about the program.
“I’m not saying we’re equal to the task against a Stanford at this point, but we’re going to lay our ears back and see what we come up with.”
Stanford is 2-2, but its losses are to No. 9 Ohio State (85-64) and No. 1 Connecticut (78-53). It easily beat UC Riverside and Cal State Bakersfield, teams with a combined record of 1-6.
Stanford has 10 players but just two starters returning from the team that went 32-6 last season. They’re led so far by 5-11 sophomore guard DiJonai Carrington, who is averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds. The Cardinal starts 6-3 and 6-4 forwards and has two McDonald All-Americans in its freshman class.
Kent State is 3-1, but its wins have come against teams with a combined 1-10 record. The Flashes’ only loss was to Florida Gulf Coast, 80-62, at the Akron Classic. In that game, the Flashes were pounded in the first half but outscored FGCU by eight in the second. It’s possible KSU could play the Eagles again Saturday in Las Vegas.
The full field:
- Belmont (2-1 and eighth in current Mid-Major Top 25), 2017 Ohio Valley Conference Champions (27-6 record).
- No. 21 DePaul (3-1), 2017 Big East Champions (27-8).
- Florida Gulf Coast (5-0 and second in current Mid-Major Top 25), 2017 A-Sun Champions (26-9).
- Gonzaga (1-1 and seventh in current Mid-Major Top 25), 2017 West Coast Conference Champions (26-7).
- Kent State (3-1), 2017 MAC East Champions (19-13).
- Memphis (1-3), 2017 fifth place (tie) in American Athletic Conference (14-16).
- No. 9 Ohio State (4-1), 2017 Big Ten Champions (28-7).
- No. 14 Stanford (2-2), 2017 NCAA Final Four (32-6), second in the Pac 12.
The tournament is named after Kay Yow, a former North Carolina State head women’s basketball coach who went through three bouts with breast cancer before she died in 2009. Kent State and almost every other women’s team in the country has a “Play4Kay” game during the season that raises money for research and honors cancer victims, survivors and their families.
To follow the game
The Stanford game is at 8:30 p.m. (Kent time) Thursday (Thanksgiving).
You can buy online video access through FloHoops. It costs $30 for the entire tournament. It’s a monthly subscription that’s automatically renewed. Be sure to cancel after you watch the games.
Audio is on Golden Flash Radio, starting at about 8:15 p.m.
Live statistics are available free through FloSports.