By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
There's no secret to the shocking success Chris Evans is enjoying this season.
No magic, no miracles or shortcuts of any kind have helped clear the path Kent State's senior star has traveled to reach elite status in the Mid-American Conference in 2012-13, after serving merely as the team's sixth man a year ago.
The drastic improvements Evans has made in every aspect of his game are simply the by-product of good, old-fashioned hard work.
"It's definitely a tribute to all the hard work I did this summer and in the off-season," said Evans. "Coming into the season, I knew I was gonna have a different role, so I just wanted to prepare myself mentally and physically to put myself in the best position I possibly could. I think it's paid off."
Thanks to the investment Evans made in himself during the off-season, his numbers have virtually doubled across the board.
Evans has raised his scoring average from 9.5 to 16.8 points per game, his rebounding numbers from 4.1 to 7.7, his assists from 0.7 to 2.2 and his steals from 1.4 to 2.0. He has also nearly doubled his number of free-throw attempts (94 to 179), and has hit more than twice as many 3-pointers this season (17 to 36). Evans is the only player in the MAC currently ranked among the top four in scoring, rebounding and steals.
Obviously, with only two of their top-eight scorers returning from a year ago, Evans' production was expected to improve in his second season at Kent State after joining the program a year ago as a transfer from Wabash Community College in Illinois. But not even one of his most staunch supporters, Flashes head coach Rob Senderoff, saw this much improvement coming.
"Anybody who would tell you that they knew going into the year that Chris Evans would be a top-five player in our league is lying," said Senderoff. "Nobody knew that, including myself. I knew Chris had the ability to take on a bigger role, but he's arguably having one of the better individual seasons in our school's history. He's one of the most improved players from one year to the next that we've ever had here. And it's all a testament to how hard he's worked."
Evans joined a veteran group of Flashes last year, and certainly had his moments.
He emerged as one of the most prolific dunkers in the country, throwing down a series of alley-oop jams and windmills with such incredible ferociousness that Evans became a semi-regular on highlight shows across the nation.
But while his dunks were tremendous, his overall game had major flaws.
"Chris is a guy, who as a junior, was really just a great athlete who could play in transition," said Senderoff. "He was a four man last year, an athletic player who could finish above the rim and occasionally could make a shot. He couldn't score in the paint last year. He was allergic to contact. He couldn't finish because of (a lack of strength), and he didn't want to finish. He couldn't dribble. He was an elite athlete, but not an elite player."
Evans' season ended with a pair of disappointing performances in Kent State's losses to Akron in the MAC Tournament semifinals and to South Carolina-Upstate in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. He played 11 minutes in each of those games and produced a mere five total points with two rebounds.
After last season ended, Evans fully realized that there was work to be done on his game and on his body.
That worked started immediately, and has yet to cease.
THE TRANSFORMATION BEGINS
While many Division I players spend at least some time away from their school during the summer, Evans never left campus.
"I didn't go home (after the winter semester ended)," said Evans. "I took the weights a lot more seriously than I ever had in my life. I watched film, and some of my finishes around the basket I wasn't really powering through guys. So over the summer I really wanted to concentrate on my strength and conditioning, and (KSU director of strength & conditioning Bob Lemieux) definitely got me ready."
From the end of last season to the beginning of this year, Evans more than doubled his max reps on the 185-pound bench press from seven to 15.
"He lifted and increased his strength numbers more than any other player that's ever been here from one season to the next," said Senderoff.
When the summer ended, Evans' body was noticeably different. He added about 15 pounds to his 6-foot-8 frame and appeared much more chiseled.
"Before the season I was weighing 225. That was a good playing weight for me," said Evans. "I've been able to be real strong around the basket and get some tough finishes."
Evans also spent the summer honing all aspects of his game as he prepared to switch from the four spot to the three position, which would give him more chances to score from the outside and give him additional freedom to penetrate and post up defenders that simply could not match his size and strength.
Evans improved his ball-handling considerably, increased his range to make himself a legitimate threat from 3-point range, and learned to use his newfound physical strength to score in the paint and draw contact on drives to the basket. He also harkened back to his days as a 10th-grade point guard at Petersburg High School to create scoring opportunities for teammates.
"I was about 6-4 or 6-5 back then, pretty tall," Evans smiled. "But we had guys that were a little taller than me, so one day my coach asked me to play point guard. I've always been able to see the floor pretty good, and I'm able to make plays for other guys as well as myself."
That versatility has turned Evans into arguably the top all-around player in the MAC.
"He worked on his game, he worked on his body," said Senderoff. "He's our back-to-the-basket scorer this year from the three (position), and 95 percent of the time he plays on the wing. He transformed himself because of how hard he worked into one of the elite players in our league, along with being an elite athlete."
Evans' relentless work during the off-season produced immediate results. He put up 21 points and nine rebounds to help Kent State win its opener in overtime over Drexel, and scored 14 or more points in the first eight games of the season while helping his team start 5-3, despite facing a rugged early season schedule.
"Going into my (senior) season I just had one goal, and that was to put this team in the best position possible," said Evans.
After a highly successful non-conference season, fans wondered if MAC teams more familiar with his game may be able to make some adjustments to slow down Evans. But that hasn't happened.
Evans has reached double figures in every conference game but one, and has hit double-digits in 28-of-30 contests this season. His overall numbers are actually slightly better in MAC games.
"Coach Senderoff has been able to make some adjustments to how (MAC) defenses are playing me," said Evans. "A couple defenses have been sagging a guy in the paint when I get the ball in the post, so we've been making adjustments to that. I just keep trying to get better and keep putting in the extra work."
Evans sees the results his hard work is producing, and he's not about to stop. Thirty minutes after Wednesday's practice had ended, Evans was still working on his jumper with assistant coach Anthony Wilkins.
"There's nobody that works harder in practice. Nobody," said Senderoff. "He never takes a rep off. In fact I've gotta pull him out of practice when I don't want him to get reps. He goes through a full individual workout before each game with coach Wilkins. Every single day he practices at a really high level, and because of that, he plays at a high level."
That unparalleled work ethic has not only made Evans a better player, but a better teammate as well, according to Senderoff.
"Because he worked so hard, his understanding of what it takes to win is getting better and better, and his team-first attitude continues to get better," said Senderoff. "He wouldn't have been a guy last year that I would say was a team-first guy. I wish he was here longer, because I think he'll just continue to get better."
Thanks in major part to Evans and fellow senior Randal Holt, Kent State has played itself into the fourth seed for the next week's MAC Tournament, despite returning just one starter and opening the league season 2-5. The Flashes have won 7-of-9 games since then, including their final five home contests, and enter tonight's regular-season finale at MAC regular-season champion Akron playing by their best basketball of the season when it matters most.
"Me putting all the hard work in was paying off, but I definitely wanted to keep it going into the most important part of the season, which is the MAC season," said Evans. "We lost five (MAC) games on the last couple of possessions, but we took those games as a learning experience. Now that we're here in March we know what we need to do. This team just has fight and refuses to lose. We're really rolling right now."
The roll simply would not be possible if Evans had not made such a huge commitment to improving himself and his game during the offseason.
"I think Chris really exemplifies that, if you put that much hard work into it, you see how much you get out of it," said Senderoff. "He deserves all the credit. It's his desire to be a good player that's transformed him into an elite player in our league. All of our kids returning can learn from his example."