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Golden Flashes still proving they belong

Some folks will try to tell you Kent State's run to the Sweet 16 and tonight's South Region semifinal against Pittsburgh is a Cinderella story.

Not so.

Kent State won an NCAA Tournament game last year against Indiana and returned four seniors, including guards Trevor Huffman, Andrew Mitchell and Demetric Shaw. It hardly resembles a poorly treated stepchild with few prospects.

"The expectations when I inherited this job were extremely high," first-year coach Stan Heath said. "We had to deal with that, which I'm not sure we handled very well early on."

By late December, the Golden Flashes were 5-4. Worse yet, the players, accustomed to playing _ and winning with _ a free-flowing offense, were resisting Heath's emphasis on rebounding, defense and half-court offensive sets that he learned as an assistant at Michigan State.

"What was easy for me, and I guess difficult for others to see, is that the system that was in place before I took over the team was a good system, it was a solid system," said Heath, 37. "It wasn't so much that I didn't want to do that, I hadn't coached that way. For me to try to coach a system I had never coached would be ludicrous in my mind. I had to go with what I knew, and what I knew and had learned at Michigan State working for Coach (Tom) Izzo worked extremely well."

But the players weren't sold on the idea of fixing something that wasn't broken. Huffman, the school's all-time leading scorer, had a verbal confrontation with Heath on this point during a practice.

"We had team meeting after team meeting after team meeting," Huffman said.

A couple of things helped.

On Christmas Day, former coach Gary Waters, who left to take over at Rutgers, phoned his former players and asked them if they still loved playing the game. He apparently couldn't tell from watching. Then, Heath showed his team a highlight tape of Duke to illustrate a team that plays with passion, with trust in one another and the staff.

"I remember thinking, I haven't looked like that in a long time; I haven't enjoyed basketball. This is such a struggle," Huffman said.

He and his teammates wanted to rediscover that enthusiasm, and he and his fellow seniors wanted to realize their goals. So they agreed to put their faith in Heath, who had helped Michigan State reach three Final Fours in a row and win a national title.

"We wanted to elevate our games and get to that level," Mitchell said. "We realized we had to give in to this guy, even though we had a strong relationship with Coach Waters and his staff, this guy, Coach Heath, was the guy for the job and we just wanted to get on the same page and achieve as much as we possibly could."

The Golden Flashes then beat Cleveland State and St. Bonaventure, which had just routed UConn by 18. They opened Mid-American Conference play with a resounding 81-54 win against Ball State, which had opened the year with wins against Kansas and UCLA.

"I think that period of time helped us grow and maybe turn another corner," Heath said. "It really gave our team some confidence. We started playing better and have continued to play better since then."

Once one of the worst rebounding teams in the MAC, Kent State is now the best with an average of 5.6 more than opponents. It also is the league's top defensive team, allowing an average of 63.3 points on 41.1-percent shooting. Offensively, Huffman (16.2 points), junior forward Antonio Gates (15.6) and Mitchell (15.2) lead a balanced attack.

Izzo would be proud.

"They play great basketball," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose top-seeded Blue Devils play Indiana in the other semifinal here. "They believe in themselves. They believe in their coaching staff. It's a very together group."

Following a last-second loss at Buffalo on Jan. 9, the 10th-seeded Golden Flashes (29-5) have run off a nation's best 20 consecutive wins. That includes wins against No. 7 seeded Oklahoma State and No. 2 Alabama in the NCAA Tournament.

A fairy-tale season?

Nah. That shoe doesn't fit.

"Any team that's playing right now is a good team," Pittsburgh point guard Brandin Knight said. "I don't know how many more games that the media or anyone else has to watch Kent State win before they realize this is not a Cinderella team."

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