Crane Tech grad is on the point

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • January 30, 2008 @ 5:22 AM

Early on, there was very little question about what Tyrone Kent wanted to do on a basketball court.

Give him the ball, and he'd shoot it.

The University of Toledo's Tyrone Kent. Photo by Dave Hochanadel

Playing for Crane Technical, which is located just a few basketball dribbles and slam-dunks away from the United Center, he averaged 25.1 points per game his senior season in 2005, was ranked among the state's best high school players of his class that year and led his team to a 23-win season.

Stan Joplin, now Kent's coach at the University of Toledo, recalls with a big smile what he saw from Kent during the recruiting process three years ago.

"He never passed the damn thing," Joplin said, laughing. "Shoot first, shoot second, shoot third. Then, maybe a spectacular play where he might pass."

That factoid sends Kent into a chuckle as well.

"Yeah, we didn't have too many guys on the team where I went to high school, " he said, "but it was all right."

So, it should come as no surprise that Kent, starting every game this year for the first time in his college career, has emerged as the leading scorer in the Mid-American Conference. How he has gotten to that lofty standing, however, is stunning.

After playing in all 32 Rocket games last season in a year that they won the MAC West championship, but just 10 times as a starter, Kent, 21, was ready to burst onto the scene as Toledo's go-to guy on the offense this season. He is as comfortable drilling 3-point shots from the perimeter as driving the lane and slamming home a dunk in the paint.

But on Oct. 15, on the first day of practice, Joplin had a change of plans for his shooting star.

Senior point guard Kashif Payne, last year's MAC Defensive Player of the Year and the team leader in assists with 135, chose to take this season off due to undisclosed personal reasons. Combine that with three other players off the team for varying reasons, and the Rockets didn't have a point guard.

Joplin's choice was Kent.

"I told him, 'Look, this will make you a better basketball player and hopefully you'll appreciate the game a lot more,'" Joplin said.

"It was like a big surprise because I thought I was going to play the 2 (guard position) like I usually play," Kent said. "Once he changed it, then I said, I've just got to change my style of play."

Instead of being the guy to take those passes on the wing, Kent finds himself the passer. He's a wide receiver turned into a quarterback. Kent still has surfaced as the leading scorer in the league with an 18.2 points-per-game average. He's also among the conference's top 10 in steals (33) and assists (53). He plays more minutes (an average of 35.9 per game) than any other Rocket. And if the point guard can't find a Rocket player to pass to, well, he shoots.

"He's been a lifesaver," Joplin said. "It's not fair that I have him playing point guard. He's never played point guard. I'm throwing him to the wolves and I know he gets emotionally drunk because I'm asking him to play defense, I'm asking him to pass the ball, I'm asking him to do too much."

"It's been exciting to learn a new position because you've got to get more guys in the game," said Kent. "It's not all about getting your shots up. It's been a good experience."

Kent savored a little home cooking on Dec. 19, when he led Toledo with 19 points in the Rockets' only Chicago appearance of the season, a 66-56 loss at UIC.

As Toledo (5-12, 2-3 MAC) chases Western Michigan, among other teams, for a shot at the MAC West title, Kent's growth as a point guard will be crucial for the Rockets. If not also a bit frustrating. The Rockets lost their last two games, Saturday at Western Michigan and Tuesday at Eastern Michigan, and Kent was the leading scorer both games, 18 and 16, respectively. But in the 68-44 loss at Eastern, Kent had zero assists. Those are the rough spots.

"It was a big challenge," said Kent.

"His natural postion is on the wing," Joplin said. "If I can get him on the wing, I would definitely like to do that, but I can't. He's the best that I have, and we have to go from there. …

"I put him in a tough position, and I think he's done a really nice job."

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.