OMAHA, Neb. -- The Star Spangled Banner was about to begin when Kent
State's manager frantically made his way across the court at Omaha's
His goal was simple: Reclaim the chain.
Moments earlier, the thick chain that had been placed on the floor before warm-ups by the Golden Flashes had been tossed off the court with a laugh by a Creighton player. Searching for the chain, which is held together by a big lock, the manager told one of the game's officials that if he didn't find it, he would be all but fired.
We're pretty sure he was serious.
The chain pretty much goes everywhere with the Kent State players. Back on campus, it hangs in the Golden Flashes' locker room. Players touch it during timeouts, and it makes all the road trips.
It is, after all, a tangible reminder of what Kent State basketball is supposed to be. Each link features the name of a Kent State player, coach or manager. The meaning isn't anything too deep or complex -- just a reminder not to be the weak link.
Fortunately for the manager, the chain was reclaimed, and after Tuesday night's 67-58 victory against previously unbeaten Creighton was over, sophomore guard Armon Gates was in the locker room, the chain hanging from his neck like an Olympic medal.
And for good reason, as the victory against the Bluejays was a big one. Creighton entered this game with victories already this season against Missouri, Ohio State and Xavier. The game was at Omaha's new downtown arena, a place where Creighton had been 18-2
since it opened and hadn't lost a game by more than a single point.
More important, it was the latest evidence that the Golden Flashes have proved to be more than just, well, a flash in the pan.
Ever since Kent State reached the Elite Eight of the 2002 NCAA
tournament with a team that featured four fifth-year seniors, the Golden
Flashes were supposed to vanish from college basketball's radar. Jim
Christian wasn't supposed to win the way previous coaches Gary Waters or Stan Heath did. Losing players like guard Trevor Huffman and power forward-turned-NFL star Antonio Gates was supposed to eventually catch up with Kent State.
Christian certainly has heard the rumblings.
"We've never been picked to win the league, and that's OK because
on paper, our teams haven't looked that good," Christian said.
"Every year I think people say, 'This is the year they're done. They
got nobody left. They lost this guy and that guy.' But this is something
our guys take a lot of pride in and they produce."
While the Golden Flashes haven't made another deep run in the
NCAA tournament after 2002, they certainly have had success. Since the beginning of the 1998-99 season, Kent State has won 150 games and no other Mid-American Conference team has won more than Toledo's 111.
Over the same stretch, the Golden Flashes have won 82 conference games and Miami (Ohio) is the next closest with 66. Accordingly, Kent State has won four consecutive MAC East Division titles.
Kent State entered this season having won at least 22 games in
each of the past six seasons, a MAC record. Only 14 other schools have
won at least 20 games in each of the past six seasons and the list reads
like something of a college hoops who's who: Arizona, College of
Charleston, Connecticut, Creighton, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Kansas,
Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Syracuse and
This season, things weren't all that different in the MAC.
Buffalo was favored to win the MAC's East Division (Kent State was
picked by most to finish second or third) and Toledo was projected to be
the league's West Division and overall winner.
The fact that the Golden Flashes weren't picked at the top
wasn't a surprise. Kent State, after all, lost five seniors and three
starters from last season's 22-9 team. Christian's team is small up
front and the third-year head coach is trying to blend together a
collection of returnees, transfers and freshmen.
But now, nearly a month into the season, Kent State and Miami
are playing as well as any teams in the MAC. In addition to Tuesday
night's victory, the Golden Flashes have a win over Florida State and
they are the only team that has defeated a surprisingly good Texas
A&M-Corpus Christi team. Kent State's only losses have come at Marquette (8-0 and on the fringe of the Top 25) and at Old Dominion (CAA favorites who are 7-1, with the only loss coming to TAMU-CC), both by five points.
Toledo, by the way, was winless before Tuesday's victory against
Nevada. Buffalo lost its league home opener to Western Michigan.
"We know we're a good team and we know where we'll be at the
end," said Golden Flashes guard DeAndre Haynes, who scored 13 points and
dished out 11 assists against Creighton. "We play hard, we go in every
day and work on our game.
"I think a lot of people sleep on us ... but we're still Kent
State and tradition never graduates at Kent State."
The Golden Flashes' success thus far this season can be attributed, in part, to the chain. In addition to fostering unity, it also represents toughness. The Golden Flashes certainly were tough against the Bluejays.
Ball pressure on the perimeter kept Creighton from ever getting
comfortable offensively. Kent State owned nearly every loose ball,
forced difficult shots and outrebounded the Bluejays. While the players have changed, the Golden Flashes still stress the same things they have in recent years. The result: Creighton was held 16 points under its season average.
"If we have a team identity, it's that we're a team that plays
very physically," Christian said.
On the offensive end, the Golden Flashes are dangerous because
of their perimeter quickness and their ability to shoot the
3-pointer. Guards Haynes and Jay Youngblood can both get past their
defender on the bounce, the team is making nearly nine 3-pointers
per game, and almost everyone can shoot it. Against Creighton, center Kevin Warzynski made a pair of 3s from the left sideline that sealed the victory.
The 6-foot-8 Warzynski, who started at Charleston Southern, is also a strong inside player. While he'd be undersized in a power conference, he'll be a load in the MAC. He's aggressive, has several good post moves and likes to mix in an effective jump hook.
"We have a young basketball team and we wanted to take them to
some tough environments," Christian said. "When we get to the league,
we'll have something to fall back on.
"The kids played hard. We knew we had to against a team that was
7-0. But we didn't play over our head."
Part of what makes Christian so excited is that he thinks this
team can get better over the course of the season. Developing consistent
bench play will be crucial in that process. The hope is that constant
improvement over the course of the season will eliminate the February
lull that the Golden Flashes have gone through the past two seasons.
Two years ago, Kent State started the season 17-2 but lost six
of eight games to close the regular season. Last season, the Golden
Flashes were 20-3 before losing their final four games before the MAC
tournament. The swoons probably cost Kent State a pair of at-large
berths to the NCAA tournament.
"The last two years, we had experienced teams and we kind of
peaked early," Christian said. "This team can get better and better."
Right now, Kent State is pretty good.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.