Kent State coach Geno Ford wasn't quite sure if his players were all onboard for playing in the National Invitation Tournament.
"It's the craziest thing I've ever seen," he told Kent-Ravenna Record Courier. "This team may have its deficiencies, but the one thing it's not deficient in is heart. No matter what situation we find ourselves in, we will compete."
Ford was understandably concerned about his team's state of mind following its 66-65 overtime loss to Akron in the Mid-American Conference title game on March 12. The loss was crushing for Kent, which won the regular-season title and was the top seed in the conference tournament.
The NIT didn't do the Golden Flashes any favors by sending them to Saint Mary's. The pairings weren't announced until late last Sunday night and Kent had to travel across the country to play Tuesday night against a team that had a chip on its shoulder after being snubbed by the NCAA selection committee.
The Golden Flashes looked like they were ready to start spring break when they fell behind by 12 points in the second half, but rallied for a 71-70 win on Justin Greene's lay-in with three seconds to play.
Kent was on the road again March 20 and defeated Fairfield 72-68. The game was close throughout, but senior Rodriquez Sherman's 3-pointer broke a 49-49 tie midway through the half and Kent never trailed again.
Ford knows his team's intensity is a big reason Kent is still playing.
"Sometimes, when you play as hard as we did, the bounces go your way," he told the the Record Courier. "It's a game of lucky bounces. The one thing our team has done all year is put itself in situations like these. We've found ways to be in games at the end."
The Golden Flashes will be underdogs again when they travel to Colorado, another team that thinks it got short-changed by the NCAA selection committee.
"We are going to have spring break in Colorado," Ford said. "(My players) weren't going anywhere anyway, so we are excited to keep our basketball family together and keep this thing going."
--With victories over Saint Mary's and Fairfield, the Golden Flashes became the first team to win its first two games of the tournament on the road since the NIT went to its current 32 team format in 2007.
--Coach Geno Ford took his team into New York City the day before the game against Fairfield. He told his players they were two wins away from spending several days there and playing in Madison Square Garden. Ford played in The Garden for Ohio University when the Bobcats won the Preseason NIT in 1994.
COACH: Geno Ford, three years at Kent, third postseason appearance (second NIT).
KEYS TO VICTORY: Winning at Colorado won't be easy. The Buffaloes may have had the most legitimate gripe of all the teams that were bypassed for the NCAA Tournament. Colorado's game is to get up and down and score as quickly as possible. Kent's defense has been one of its strengths and that will be tested again. The Golden Flashes will have to shoot well and keep the turnovers to a minimum. To their credit, Kent's players have used the disappointment of losing the Mid-American Conference title game as motivation. The Golden Flashes have shown their toughness and carry a lot of momentum into the game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This might be the best win I've ever been a part of at Kent State. Saint Mary's is really, really good. They should have been in the NCAA Tournament. They were top 25 in the nation for half the year. And here we are, after a crazy 2,500-mile trip to get out here, tired as can be, on the road and down 12 in the second half. And our guys kept fighting." -- Kent State coach Geno Ford to the Kent-Ravenna Record Courier after the win over Saint Mary's.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
at Colorado, March 22, National Invitation Tournament third round
KEY MATCHUPS: After getting away from the philosophy that had been successful all season in the conference title game, Kent has returned to its usual strategy in the two NIT games. Four players have scored in double figures in both games. Guards Michael Porrini and Carlton Guyton have been breaking down the defense, which has led to several options. Porrini and Guyton can score, dump the ball off to Justin Greene or Justin Manns or kick it outside to Randall Holt, who has shot well in both games.
SCOUTING REPORT: Kent must contain Colorado's guards. Alec Burks (20.4 points per game) and Cory Higgins (16.2 points per game) lead the Buffaloes in scoring. Colorado is shooting 37 percent on 3-pointers. Guard Levi Knutson leads the way, making 48 percent of his 3-pointers. Colorado averages 80.1 points and shoots 47.4 percent overall. Defense is an afterthought at times. The Buffaloes allow 73.6 points a game, something Kent needs to exploit, especially with its inside game.
--Junior F Justin Greene scored 11 points with seven rebounds against Saint Mary's, including the game-winning basket. He had eight points and eight rebounds against Fairfield.
--Junior G Michael Porrini left the March 20 game against Fairfield midway through the second half after being elbowed in the head and didn't return. He scored 19 points against Saint Mary's and 11 against Fairfield.
--Sophomore G Randal Holt has played a big role in the two NIT wins. After scoring 13 points, making 5 of 11 shots against Saint Mary's, he scored 22 against Fairfield, hitting 8 of 12 shots. Holt has hit 7 of 15 on 3-pointers in the NIT.
--Junior C Justin Manns has missed one shot in nine attempts in the NIT. Most of his baskets have been dunks, thanks to Kent's guards getting in the lane and finding him at the basket. Manns had six points and six rebounds against Saint Mary's and 10 points and five rebounds against Fairfield.