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Pluto: You Might Want to Start Paying Attention to the Akron/Kent State Rivalry

photo of Kent State basketball
Akron and Kent State renew their rivalry this Friday

Men’s college basketball heats up on Friday when Kent State and Akron face each other in the first of two games between the rivals in as many weeks. Akron is in first place in the Mid-American Conference East Division with Kent State two games behind.

WKSU commentator Terry Pluto says Kent State and Akron have their strengths when it comes to certain sports -- Akron with soccer and track and Kent with golf and baseball. But they've never been elite in the same sport at the same time -- at least not until in recent years in basketball.  

"Akron had the best record over the last five years and Kent was right behind with the second best in the MAC."

All in a coach
This will be Akron coach Keith Dambrot's 11th straight season with at least 20 wins. Pluto says Akron's breakthrough happened when Dambrot was brought in after three seasons of coaching LeBron James at St. Vincent St. Mary's High School. Two of his top recruits were James' high school teammates, Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce, III .

"They helped turn the whole program around. Suddenly it went from just a so-so, 'so what' program in the MAC to the premier one. In 11 years, he's gone to three NCAA tournaments and three NIT tournaments."  

Akron's rise is a shift from the late 1990's and early 2000's when Kent State dominated the MAC. In 2002, the Flashes went to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight

A scarlet letter
For the past five years, Kent State has been coached by Rob Senderoff.

"Senderoff is a very interesting story," Pluto says. "He had been an assistant earlier in his career with Kent State and was at some other schools. At one of his stops, he got into some minor trouble with the NCAA for making phone calls out of recruiting season. Kent gave him a second chance. So, he's been kind of coaching for his life here."

Last season was Senderoff's most successful as head coach, as he led Kent State to a share of the MAC regular season title. It was followed by a postseason run to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT). 

"Two coaches in the MAC came from sort of a scarlet letter in the their background and revived their careers."

Keith Dambrot also had a bit of rocky past before he came to Akron. He was a rising college coaching star at Ashland and then at Central Michigan, where he was fired for using a racial slur in a team meeting.

"He said, 'Guys, I'm going to use a certain term to make a point,'" Pluto says. "Well, somebody decided to make a point about him. Then, all of a sudden, for five years after that, he can't get a job at the worst high school in Akron. So, St. Vincent St. Mary's gave him a chance. And then Akron brought him as an assistant and now he's the coach."

"So, two coaches in the MAC came from sort of a scarlet letter in their background and revived their careers," Pluto says. "And the nice thing, too, is unlike a lot of hot coaches in the MAC where they're there two years and then they get out and go somewhere else, I don't think Keith is going anywhere at the age of 57."

And he adds, Senderoff still has something to prove here.

"He's got to figure out how to at least get to an NIT tournament or an NCAA tournament. He just can't seem to do that. He's won a lot of games. That's the next step he needs to take.'

Can they break through in March Madness?
MAC schools have had little success in the NCAA tournament in recent years. But, Pluto says Akron could make a statement should it win the MAC tournament and get the bid. 

"They have a couple of guys that are big -- 6'9"-6'10"-- which usually you don't get at the MAC. They're a very good three-point shooting team and for the most part have been very healthy."

Akron and Kent State face off this Friday in a game to be televised on ESPN 2. But, Pluto encourages fans to check it out in person. 

"They don't cost much. The quality of basketball is really high. The atmosphere at Akron or Kent for these games is tremendous and you will see two of the better coaches in the country in Keith Dambrot and Rob Senderoff."

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