A year ago, Kent State’s magical season season ended with a good loss at Michigan in the WNIT.
The Flashes had won 13 more games than the previous year, jumped more RPI spots than any team in the country and won the MAC East for the first time in 12 years.
We knew the encore would be hard.
I’m not sure we thought it would be this hard.
Kent State finished this season with a 13-19 record — the reverse of last year’s 19-13. Picked second in the MAC East, the Flashes finished a distant fourth. Overall, they were 10th in the MAC.
This post will start to wrap up the 2017-18 season. We’ll look at players today; next we’ll look at numbers and games that made a difference.
Later we’ll look ahead to next season, check how the recruiting class did in their senior year in high school, and maybe get a year-end interview with coach Todd Starkey.
When Starkey became head coach in April 2016, he inherited a 6-23 team that had been mired in the depths of the MAC for five years. We’d have been happy with a .500 season. Heck, we’d have been delighted with 10 wins.
Instead we got a miracle season. Everything fell into place. Starkey instilled a new attitude and new offensive and defensive systems. Larissa Lurken went from the second-best player on Kent State’s team to the best player in the MAC. Jordan Korinek, McKenna Stephens and Megan Carter made major jumps as offensive players in the MAC season. (Despite Lurken’s 23 points a game, Kent State was a .500 team before those three came into their own.)
This season almost nothing fell into place. Every starter but Lurken returned, but all of them averaged within two points of what they did the previous season.
That’s not saying that group had bad years.
Korinek was all-MAC and academic all-American. She scored the third most points in a season in Kent State history. Every opponent built its game plan around stopping her. Not many did. She scored more than 30 points three times, more than 20 points 16 times, more than 15 points 24 times.
Who knows how many games Kent State would have won had Stephens not come back for a final year of eligibility? She got her undergrad degree in May but decided last summer to return as a grad student for her last year of eligibility. She led Kent State in rebounding in 11 games and averaged the same solid 10 points a game she did in the Flashes’ championship run.
Carter missed the first semester because of one of the strangest academic ineligibilities in in college basketball; her pre-med major was too much, and tough lab classed killed her GPA. She became KSU’s second-leading scorer when she returned. While she was sidelined in fall, Starkey said he thought she could make a big difference in Kent State’s offense when she returned. That never happened; we probably expected too much for a sophomore. Carter’s scoring kept Kent State in some games, but in others she’d struggle terribly (two for 20 in Kent’s first game against Akron, for example). Carter averaged 10.2 points a game. How many points did Lurken average when she was a sophomore? 11.1.
Alexa Golden played her usual great defense and became an intense rebounder from her guard position. But Starkey said she played most of the season on legs that sometimes hurt so much that she didn’t practice. At the end of last season and in the non-conference season, Golden showed potential as a scorer, especially as a distance shooter. But she only scored more than eight points four times in 18 conference games. She scored fewer than five points 11 times.
Sophomore Ali Poole took Lurken’s spot in the starting lineup. Her defense was greatly improved and her scoring was up to 7.1 points a game — far from Lurken numbers (but, to be honest, not far from Lurken’s sophomore numbers).
Naddiyah Cross was an unsung starter — 91 of 123 games in her four years. She averaged four points a game for her career (5.1 this season). But the Flashes won three games this season because she did score — 19 points in an overtime win at Eastern Kentucky, 24 points in a seven-point win over Eastern Michigan, 20 points in KSU’s overtime upset of Toledo in the MAC Tournament. But the game I’ll remember is her brilliant defensive performance at Michigan, when she played the chaser in a box-and-one defense and held all-American guard Katelynn Flaherty to four points, second lowest in Flaherty’s career.
Tyra James returned after missing all last season with a knee injury, but her numbers weren’t anywhere near the 10 points a game she averaged two years ago. Her minutes were limited until the last six games of the season. I thought she made a difference once she played; I wish we had seen more of her earlier. That also would have eased the load in the rest of the guards, who played a lot of minutes and may have worn down.
A year ago, Starkey credited junior Merissa Barber-Smith with making the difference in the Flashes’ winning three games. KSU was counting on Barber-Smith, the tallest player on the team at 6-4, as its key post reserve. Instead, Barber-Smith went out with a medical issue on January. Senior Zenobia Smith stepped in, but she’s four inches shorter and couldn’t take over the backboards and block shots the way Barber-Smith could.
Kent State’s freshman class was recruited in the three months after Starkey arrived. By that time, most of the best high school seniors had been committed to other colleges for months. Starkey put together what looked like a solid class, but none of them really had an impact on this season. Erin Thames, who had the least impressive high school statistics of the group, actually played the most minutes as a serviceable back-up point guard. Monique Smith, who had the most impressive high school record of the group, showed some potential, leading the team with six rebounds at Miami.
Kent State won the MAC East last season because Lurken averaged 10 points a game more than she did as a junior in a classic breakout season.
To do as well this year, the Flashes needed a breakout season from someone else.
They didn’t get it.