The 1997-98 season was one wild rollercoaster ride for the Kent State men's basketball team, chalked full of enough climbs and descents to keep players feeling peaked well into the offseason.
But the slow late-season ascent seems to have settled coach Gary Waters' stomach.
The Golden Flashes won four of seven games to close the campaign, including a stunning upset victory over Akron in the Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinals that vaulted them into the MAC's Final Four for the first time since 1989.
The Flashes (13-17, 9-9 MAC) also finished .500 in the conference for the first time this decade even though they never won more than two games in a row while turning in a season-long string of up-and-down performances.
"It certainly was an interesting year," Waters smiled. "Consistency was definitely a problem, as we expected with such a young team. But in the end, things started to come together and the chemistry started to flow. We started to develop into the type of team that we'll be on a more consistent basis in the future."
Kent State took its lumps early on, losing 8 of its first 12 games and all three during a rugged trip to Hawaii in late December.
"We came out of the Hawaii trip disappointed and not sure how far we had come along because we were exhausted," said Waters. "Then we beat Western Michigan (Jan. 8), and that proved we could compete with anyone in this league. But even after that, we still struggled with consistency."
The ups and downs continued for the Flashes, who nevertheless still managed to climb into the second place in the MAC's East Division after being picked to finish dead last in the preseason.
"Our players laughed at that poll," said Waters. "Expectations weren't high from anyone else, but we knew we weren't a last-place team. We knew we could compete in this league. It took us a little longer because our returnees struggled for a while, but eventually we developed into a competitive team."
And Kent State did it without a single senior or consistent scoring threat.
Freshman forward Kyrem Massey averaged a team-high 12 points per game, but he missed six games due to a foot injury and missed the MAC Tournament semifinal loss to Miami after he was suspended for delivering a blow to the head of Akron's Jami Bosley in their quarterfinal matchup.
"Kyrem probably grew the most this season," said Waters. "I think he really matured after experiencing all the things he did this year, and it will show next season."
Junior Ed Norvell's play seemed to dictate the team's overall performance. Norvell (9 points, 5.6 assists per game) struggled immensely early on, but came on strong as the season progressed.
"Norvell accepted the role we wanted him to as a leader and made everyone around him better," said Waters.
The KSU mentor also singled out the play of guards John Callaway (junior, 6.1 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game) and Jose Davis (sophomore, 6.9 ppg), center John Whorton (sophomore, 11.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and former local high school stars Nate Meers (sophomore, Stow H.S.) and Mike Perry (freshman, Barberton H.S.).
"(Callaway) gave us some quality minutes offensively and defensively, and Jose solidified the point guard position, a spot we were really struggling with," said Waters. "Whorton gave us a presence inside, Perry (5.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg) gave us some much-needed enthusiasm early on and Meers (8.8 ppg, 41 percent 3-pointers) gave us firepower off the bench."
Waters will have all of his firepower back next year along with point guard Andrew Mitchell and swingman Eric Thomas (Prop 48s) and forward Rashaun Warren, who lost his academic eligibility after the first semester. Those players should help the Flashes in areas of weakness, according to Waters.
"We need to solidify the point guard position and add a good one in Mitchell next year," said Waters. "Thomas is a Kyrem Massey-type player who should help us immediately, and Warren gives us more strength inside.
"We can always use another guard who can score, and we need one more physical presence inside. But right now, I think I'll only bring in one new player at the most. I may just keep three scholarships for next year's early signing period and get exactly what I want."
Expectations have been relatively low during Waters' first two years at Kent State. But that will all change in 1998-99, a fact the KSU mentor readily acknowledges and welcomes with open arms.
"We're looking to propel ourselves into the upper echelon of the MAC next year," said Waters. "We'll have the players to play the style of basketball I want, and we'll be more experienced. Some people may not realize that the room for improvement is still very large with the players in this program. I assure you, the best of times for Kent basketball have yet to come."