When Kent State plays Akron on television, broadcasters who didn't bother to research more than four talking points to fill up timeouts like to point out the proximity of the schools - 13 driving miles - at least 38 times per game.
In reality, they're a little further apart than that. Despite its physical nearness to Akron and its technical designation as part of the Cleveland-Akron metropolitan area, driving towards Kent, OH in Interstate 76 feels a little like driving to the edge of the planet. Especially in the dark, the freeway trails off into the distance. The drive requires a leap of faith and the silencing of voices trying to convince you that in fact, you passed your exit three hours ago and are actually in some rural Pennsylvania locale.
Even if you've been to KSU before, it always is a little surprising when you approach the destination and those voices convert from skepticism to excitement, as in "Hey, there's a large university here! Is there a home game tonight?" Perhaps because of its relative isolation, perhaps because its archrival has a tradition of being primarily a commuter school, there's something about Kent State that just feels more college than Akron. Nowhere is that more evident than in the school's basketball arena, the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center, where the crowd is much more tightly packed in the student sections on the baselines and in the general admission upper-level blue bleachers than in the pricey chairback seats at courtside.
Despite these differences, there are important similarities between Kent State, Akron, and indeed all mid-majors. They're the types of commonalities that give rise to the concept of All of Us, a unity forged of much sterner stuff than the shallow chest-beating of conference versus conference challenge events. All of Us, for example, have watched a promising regular season end in a loss during conference tournament week, only to watch the sixth-place Big Ten team jump out of their seats yelling on Selection Sunday. That was the fate suffered by the Golden Flashes last season when the MAC regular season champs fell in overtime of the championship game - yep, to Akron - then used the disappointment as fuel that didn't run out until the NIT quarterfinals.
That still wasn't enough for KSU though. Because the similarities lead us back to differences. The Golden Flashes, of course, once had a team that smashed the glass ceiling of the Sweet 16 long before it became the cool thing to do. The specter of that 2001-02 team has hung over every subsequent Kent State squad - quite literally, since each number retired by the program represents a player from that team and they're joined in perpetuity by an Elite Eight banner (just in case you forgot what Messrs. Huffman and Gates were doing up there).
Even though the oldest of today's Golden Flashes were in sixth grade during the Elite Eight run, that culture lives on. In fact it's why, when KSU found themselves down 22-11 to Conference USA's UAB Blazers, there was no panic on the court, just as there was no sense of doom in the crowd. There was simply no justification for those things.
Kent simply kept doing what it always does: swarming defense, opportunistic scoring, unparalleled teamwork. By halftime, when I set off to devour the best sausage sandwich I've ever had at a college basketball game, Chris Evans, Justin Greene and Randal Holt had sliced the deficit to 28-24. When KSU scored the first six of the second half to take its first lead since 2-0, then slowly pulled away throughout the final 20 thanks to the same things they had been doing all along, it was much more inevitability than stunner. After all, this was the team that dominated West Virginia in Morgantown, just as their forerunners didn't flinch at the sight of the Pitt Panthers. Why would a 1-5 team from just above the red line create any issues?
at KENT STATE 57, UAB 48 12/03/2011
UAB 1-6 (0-0) -- C. Moore 5-10 4-6 14; P. Purifoy 3-7 0-0 8; J. Swing 4-13 0-0 9; R. Williams 2-5 2-2 7; O. Soko 0-0 0-0 0; Q. Taylor 1-6 1-2 4; J. Tyler 3-7 0-0 6; K. Whitaker 0-1 0-0 0; B. Hamga 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-49 7-10 48. KENT STATE 5-1 (0-0) -- C. Guyton 2-9 0-0 5; J. Greene 2-9 6-6 10; R. Holt 4-8 4-5 13; M. Porrini 4-7 2-2 11; C. Evans 5-8 0-0 12; J. Manns 2-3 0-0 4; E. Gaines 0-2 0-0 0; P. Jackson 1-3 0-0 2; K. Brewer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-49 12-13 57.
Three-point goals: UAB 5-18 (C. Moore 0-1; R. Williams 1-2; J. Swing 1-4; P. Purifoy 2-6; Q. Taylor 1-3; J. Tyler 0-1; K. Whitaker 0-1), KENT 5-13 (M. Porrini 1-2; C. Evans 2-5; R. Holt 1-4; C. Guyton 1-2); Rebounds: UAB 30 (J. Swing 8), KENT 26 (J. Greene 7); Assists: UAB 11 (Q. Taylor 3), KENT 12 (C. Guyton 5); Total Fouls -- UAB 11, KENT 10; Fouled Out: UAB-None; KENT-None.