Still basking in the glow of their Mid-American Conference tournament championship, the Kent State Golden Flashes, along with their fans, converged on the Water Street Tavern in downtown Kent late Sunday for a huge moment of excitement and discovery.
Not long after the on-court celebration subsided Saturday, KSU turned its attention to some obvious questions:
-- Who would the Flashes play in the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament?
-- Where and when would that contest be played?
As the tourney pairings . . .
KSU (22-13) and UCLA (29-4) will square off Friday night (10 p.m. ET) at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California as part of the South Region action.
“Playing UCLA, the most storied program in the history of college basketball will be a challenge.” Golden Flashes head coach Rob Senderoff said.
The name and the mystique of UCLA is something special. They are to college basketball what the New York Yankees are in baseball, the Green Bay Packers are in football, or the Montreal Canadiens are in hockey. The Bruins have 11 national championship banners hanging from the rafters inside Pauley Pavilion.
Past players include legendary names Hazzard, Goodrich, Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, Wicks, Rowe, Bibby, Wilkes, Johnson, Miller, Love and ... well, the list goes. Could this year’s squad be adding to a celebrated list? Quite possibly.
UCLA is coached by Steve Alford, who is in his fourth season on the Westwood campus. After a pair of Sweet 16 season, the Bruins struggled to a 15-17 mark last season. Some felt Alford could be on the hot seat if this year’s team didn’t produce.
The Bruins started the season winning their first 13 games. That included victories at Kentucky and home against Michigan. Their first loss came at Oregon, but the Bruins rebounded with six more wins before setbacks at Arizona and then at cross-town rival USC.
UCLA regrouped and avenged all those losses when the Wildcats, Ducks, and Trojans came to Westwood but finished third in the conference. In PAC-12 tournament play, the Bruins beat USC in the quarterfinals before losing to Arizona in the semis.
The ‘Uclans’ have been among the top in the college basketball polls all season long, finishing the regular season sixth and ninth in the national polls.
Much of their success comes from a potent AND balanced scoring attack. Six players average in double figures and the Bruins are the top scoring team in all of Division I. Together, they average 90.4 points per game.
Guard Lonzo Ball, arguably the top freshmn in the nation, averages 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game while shooting 54.4 percent from the field
Senior Bryce Alford, son the head coach, is averaging 15.8 points per game and is an 81.7 percent free throw shooter. Throw in senior Issac Hamilton and you have one of the best trios in college basketball.
In addition, the Bruins have size up from in another freshman. T.J. Leaf leads the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game. Junior Thomas Welsh is a solid contributor, while coming off the bench is sophomore Aaron Holiday -- one of the best sixth men in all of the college game at 12.3 points per game. He has registered 23 games in double figures..
This is UCLA’s 48th appearance in the tournament. However, the Bruins have not won the title since 1995, when they beat then defending national champion Arkansas in Seattle.
The Golden Flashes, meanwhile, come to Sacramento following an improbable run to win their sixth MAC Tournament title.
KSU will face the Bruins having won nine of its last 10 games. The run started when they defeated Akron at Rhodes Arena on February 17th 70-67 ending the Zips 30-game home winning streak.
The Flashes won five of their last six regular-season games, with their only loss coming to the Zips at home in the regular season finale, 66-56.
The sixth seeded Flashes started MAC tourney play by defeating 11th seeded Central Michigan at home, 116-106, in a thrilling high scoring overtime affair. Once in Cleveland, the Flashes defeated third seeded Buffalo 68-65 on Thursday, second seeded Ohio on Friday 68-66 and then UA in the title tilt 70-65.
For KSU, success typically has a lot to do with Jimmy Hall.
The senior from Brooklyn, New York had a slow start to his senior season, but he is finishing with a flourish. A former MAC Player of the Year, Hall was named to the All-MAC team for a third consecutive season in 2017, leading the Flashes with 18.7 ppg and 10.6 rpg.
Hall has put up some truly impressive numbers. He owns 22 double-doubles, including seven in the last eight games. Hall also has 20 games in which he tallied 20 or more points and has failed to score in double digits only once this season.
In the tournament, he has come up with outstanding performances against CMU (a career best 33 points), UB, Ohio and UA averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds in the four games.
Sophomore Jaylin Walker, coming back from a broken foot, has been a solid second scoring option. The native of Detroit has averaged 15.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and had a career high with 29 points against CMU. In the title game against Akron, he scored a career-high 30 points and was named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player and joined Hall on the All-Tournament team.
Senior Deon Edwin has also been big on the stat sheet. He averaged 13.4 points and 2.4 assists per game. His biggest games were in the first game against the Zips, when he scored 21 in the road win, and his three late in the second half, giving KSU the lead for good in the win over the Bobcats at home.
Others that have contributed were freshman Mitch Peterson with his three-point shooting, junior Desmond Ridenour for his defense and freshman Kevin Zabo, who had 15 points in the semi-final against the ‘Cats.
This will be the first ever meeting between the two Kent State and UCLA. The Bruins are heavily favored. However, KSU hopes to continue some of its own March Madness come Friday.
Since the field expanded to 64 (now 68) teams in 1985, 14th seeds like Cleveland State, Arkansas-Little Rock, Richmond, Bucknell, Ohio, Harvard and most recently Mercer hae played the role of David over Goliath.
This is the 15th anniversary of the Flashes magical run to the Elite Eight before losing to Indiana. Could another run be in the offing? One thing is for certain: Kent State is starting with a huge challenge.