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Single-Humiliation Tournament

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--The Mid-American Conference needs to wait until the end of April to name its men's basketball Coach of the Year. In a conference where a regular-season title grants you nothing but a hollow NIT appearance, the jury should remain in deliberation until the ultimate prize is settled. The MAC Tournament is where the best coach shines. Unfortunately for Kent State's Geno Ford, it can also be the venue for the entire sports world to see you should give the award back.

Only in Kent can someone go from conference Coach of the Year to the hot seat in the span of one week. Geno Ford may not be the answer if the Flashes are to move forward into a perennial lock at the MAC Tournament finals. It is easy to call him a great coach. His team won the regular season championship this year, and his winning percentage is .636 in just two seasons. But what does this really mean? He inherited a dynasty mid-major program. Anyone that replaced Jim Christian could have accumulated similar totals, because the players ultimately won these games. And in a season where there was no surprising storyline of adversity overcome, it was natural to reward the coach of the best team in the conference. The question is whether that regular-season title will be hoisted thanks to Ford, or despite him.

Last year the Flashes fizzled, and for the first time in 11 seasons, finished without 20 wins. They lost in the 2009 MAC quarterfinals, and did so again Friday night. Losses are inevitable; expectations for a perfect conference season and a clean sweep of the tournament are unfair to Ford. After all, only one team out of the 32 conferences (Butler) finished their conference season without a loss. However, the way Kent State is losing and the timing of the losses are beginning to reflect poor coaching.

Geno Ford's two-year resume:

2008-09 Regular Season: 18-13 (10-6)
Bad Losses: @ Bowling Green, a team they beat by 24 points at home earlier in the year.
MAC Tournament: After one victory in the MAC tournament over Northern Illinois, Kent fell to Buffalo in the quarterfinals.
Postseason: The only shot for Kent to get into a postseason tournament was if the NCAA made one up. And that is just what happened. In an effort to make college basketball as cheesy as its football counterpart, someone with way too much money and no common sense thought a CollegeInsider.com Tournament would be a good idea. Kent State was saved. The streak of 20-win seasons was definitely in tact; they even had a legitimate chance of winning the whole tournament. The opening game matched them with Oakland, of the Summit League. Forty uninspired minutes of basketball later, the season ended dismally at 19-15.
Roster Highlights: MAC Player-of-the-Year, Al Fisher, as well as seniors Jordan Mincy, and Julian Sullinger

2009-10 Regular Season
: 23-8 (13-3)
Bad Losses: @ Bowling Green, 15-point loss @ Buffalo
MAC Tournament: Once again, the Golden Flashes fell in the quarterfinals. This time, by 17 to Ohio.
Postseason: ? (NIT appearance was clinched with MAC regular-season title)
Roster Highlights: All-MAC First Team, Chris Singletary, along with Anthony Simpson, and Justin Greene

Neither of these seasons were considered "rebuiling," so no benefit of that doubt will be extended to Coach Ford. With the caliber of players they possessed, Kent State should have been clear-cut MAC Champions. Instead, they did not even make it to the MAC semifinals. Kent had enough talent this season to win a First Round NCAA Tournament game. It is a shame that the world will never get a chance to see that. Something is clearly off in the locker room. Something that the home crowd support and immense talent can overcome during the course of a regular season. Something that only shows itself when the team faces adversity in the spotlight.

Fans of Kent State would honestly give back four wins (and the MAC regular-season title) every year if they could transplant those victories to the MAC Tournament. That is the nature of a one-bid league. Winning in January is not for building an at-large resume. Let's be honest, that is reserved for the Big East and ACC schools. The MAC regular-season is just a tune-up for when you meet these teams again in March--when it counts. The regular-season title and NIT bid are as nice as getting a sweater from your grandmother on Christmas, but it is not what people play for; so it is subsequently not what fans should be satisfied with.

What makes this whole thing worse is that the MAC is obviously down. This is not the late-1990s, early 2000s conference fans are used to. The MAC has not won a First Round game since Central Michigan in 2003. There is no reason why Kent State has not risen to the top to take advantage of a weak crop. Kent does own a sizable advantage in regular-season conference victories this decade. It has just not translated into NCAA appearances like other mid-major powers.

It is what Gonzaga in the WCC and Butler in the Horizon League have perfected. At the end of the last century they were no-names. Now, they have a stranglehold on their mid-major conferences. Regular-season wins snowballed into annual automatic bids, into NCAA Tournament wins, into big name recruits, into conference domination. On the flip side, Kent State has allowed good seasons to go to waste by following them up with early MAC Tournament exits. It is tough for top recruits to get excited about your program when you are not playing on ESPN the Saturday before Selection Sunday; and then are nowhere to be found in the NCAA bracket that next day.

During the present season, Ford expressed confusion as to why his team was not getting national attention. They finished the regular-season with an RPI of 42, a win over a good UAB team, and 22 Division I victories, and yet were missing from all the analyst's bubble discussions. If I were a player, I would be happy to see my coach was taking things one game at a time. Lobbying for press is irresponsible. It shows you are complacent with the job you have done and the task ahead is well in-hand. Kent State should have handled its business and let the analysts do their talking. Caring about early March predictions is for the fans, not the coaches. Geno Ford got cocky, assumed a mere appearance in the MAC finals would be good enough to get in, and this rubbed off on his team. They overlooked a mediocre Ohio team (the 9 seed in the conference) and made last night's contest look like a Varsity vs. JV scrimmage.

As for that quarterfinal game, a coach cannot teach hustle, heart, and pure athleticism. He
can teach kids how to box out, hedge ball screens, and use a bounce pass after a ball-fake. Oh, and allotting some time in the practice schedule for free throws might not be a bad idea.

While not directly Ford's fault, a poor shooting percentage in big games is a testament to his preparation with the team. I know Quicken Loans is a new atmosphere with a different depth perception for the players, but Ohio seemed to adjust just fine. If anything, that large arena and noisy crowd is even more of a reason to attack the rim with the bigs.

For the game, Ohio shot 50% from the field to Kent's 35.8%. At the free throw line, Kent State was an embarrassing 13-26 ("team leader" Chris Singletary was 7-16). These two percentages are bad, but pale in comparison to the three-point percentage. Ohio did not shoot anything too outrageous--37.5%. It is not like they shot Kent State out of the game. Kent State shot Kent State out of the game. 15% from three (3-20) does not win any games; certainly not ones where you have no inside presence established whatsoever.

If this game was an anomaly, it would not be as tough of a pill to swallow. But last year's quarterfinal against Buffalo saw eerily similar numbers--38.2% field goal percentage and 60% from the charity stripe.

It is true that college players have their shooting mechanics set in stone, and it is tough to coach new habits. However, It is in the job description of the coach to work with kids in practice for hours and hours so that their shots are second nature, in a barn or a 30,000 seat arena. Kent State was not adequately prepared to turn their minds off and play on instincts, muscle memory, and repetitions.

At the very least, the coach needs to realize who has the hot hand and who being counterproductive. Allowing someone like Tyree Evans to play 23 minutes while going 0-6 from the field would be tolerable if he knew what a weak-side defensive rebound was and played a resemblance of defense. Ford had to get someone in there that could at least stop the bleeding. You cannot trade buckets when you are down 16; even worse when you are only importing points.

That leads me to the issue of personnel. A coach does not always have be a teacher or motivator to be great. They can act more like Phil Jackson (or any baseball manager) who quietly sit on the bench, for they put people in the position to succeed. They know which players bring out the best in each other. In his two years, Geno Ford mismanaged the chemistry every time Brandon Parks touched the court. For my money, Parks should have never played a minute in his time at Kent State. Greene and Simpson were never truly in foul trouble all season. And for a team with a very limited role from its pure post play, his restricted services are not necessary.

Last night, Parks capped his senior senior true to form. After committing his second foul in a mere three minutes of play, he shoved his teammate (Anthony Simpson) as he tried to show Parks what he had done wrong. You would think after four years, Parks would understand the basics of basketball. It is not the responsibility of his teammates to do that mid-game. Parks' frustration told me that Simpson was either telling him something the coach has failed to mention (unacceptable if true), or something the coach yells at him often about (why is he playing if he is that prone to making mistakes). The four other players on the court have to feel like their coach is sabotaging their efforts by putting such a liability on the floor with them.

I know Anthony Simpson has range, but Kent State's power forwards are being used as decoys too often. Rather than establishing an early presence down low, like a great football team runs the ball to set up the pass, Greene and Simpson were limited to roving perimeter passers. Who limited them? Was it the defense of Ohio? I did not feel they were doing anything noteworthy; half the game was spent in a compact 2-3 zone and the rest was a half-court man that trapped near the time-line. Last night, it was the offensive identity of Kent State that hindered its own cause. Based on what I saw, I am not sure if Kent State had ever seen a zone defense before. The cutting was slow, players like Justin Greene were 30 feet from the hoop, and the passing was sloppy.

One such swing-pass at the top of the key by Simpson led to a breakaway wind-mill dunk to take a 3 point Ohio lead to 5 and swing the entire momentum of the game. From where I was standing, it was the turning point of the entire game. And what made it so painful is that it looked as if Simpson was going through the motions, blindly following the instructions in his head to reverse the ball without recognizing a defense was on the court. In other words, it looked like he was running the offense in a practice. How could a team play so nonchalantly?

As for our deep threats, Mike McKee and Tyree Evans combined to go 0-10 from the three-point line. This futility was highlighted by McKee's first three that hit the side of the backboard. A little nervous? They were playing so tight, as if they were the underdogs. Sounds like Geno Ford gave a calming pre-game speech.

And the Kent State staple--defense--allowed one player to score 38 points, distribute 7 assists, get to the foul line 16 times, and bring down 5 rebounds. Ohio's Armon Bassett was allowed to go anywhere he wanted to go last night. Coach Ford had his guards pressure the ball too tight, too far away from the rim. Rather than giving the speedy Bassett a cushion, Kent defenders saw more of his back than the front of his jersey.

To contain this dribble-drive ability, did the defense change once all night? Not that I saw. The traps came out farther in the second half, but nothing slowed Bassett. Albert Eisnstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. If this is true, color Geno Ford insane.

One game after trouncing arch-rival Akron on their home court, on ESPN2, and to win the regular-season title, Kent State laid an egg. They looked the worst I have ever seen them play in my six years at Kent State. I understand off-nights are part of basketball, but a senior-laden team should not look like that. Kent should own Quicken Loans arena as their second home court. Their passionate fans travel well and Kent is the closest MAC school to Cleveland. Instead, the Flashes are 1-2 under Ford in that building. It is becoming a painful trend that Geno Ford's worst coaching games are when the automatic bid is on the line. The joke would come full-circle if, in the year that Kent State severely pounded Akron in both regular-season meetings, the Zips win the MAC Tournament.

The only thing that could save Ford next year is if the level of clutch in this year's senior class is the real issue. Before the Ford era began, Kent State won the 2008 MAC tournament and found themselves in a (8) vs. (9) match-up in the Big Dance. It was the highest seed in school history. With Coach Jim Christian at the helm, the Flashes never got off the bus against UNLV. They scored (a tournament-record low) 10 first half points.

It was this same team that earned a ranking in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 Poll for the first time in school history after a regular-season win against St. Mary's, only to fall out of the poll the very next week courtesy of an inexplicable loss to Bowling Green. So maybe it is not strictly on the coach. The effort last night was reminiscent of 2008. After the big wins in Kent history, a colossal loss brings the school right back to reality. The common denominator was some of the players. When the moment is the brightest, this class of seniors frankly disappeared.

This year's NIT is almost a lose-lose for Ford. If Kent has the ability to string together a few victories, fans will question how they could stumble against a team like Ohio. Plus, wins in the NIT are bittersweet, unexciting, and meaningless. Yet, if he loses a First Round NIT game, it suddenly takes meaning. It means Ford would be 1-4 in the postseason.

I am not leading a charge to fire Geno Ford. Furthermore, no one in any level of sports should be out as coach after just two seasons. This is especially true in college, where a new coach's first recruiting class has not had the proper time to mature. However, next year might just be Ford's last chance to prove he can win the big one--any big one. He will have an experienced team returning; starters Rodriquez Sherman and Justin Greene should be an unstoppable inside-outside tandem. Kent also gets to see what JuCo transfer 6'-11" Justin Manns can do. The common denominator that linked him to Jim Christian--Singletary, McKee, and Parks--will be gone, so there can be no one else to blame for coming up short.

Not getting to the MAC's version of the Final Four for a third straight year will be intolerable; and would likely see the termination of Geno Ford, no matter if the season brings another regular-season championship and conference Coach of the Year Award.

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