Over the last two weeks, sophomore guard Jaylin Walker has emerged as a leader for the Kent State University men’s basketball team, but the road to the Mid-American Conference Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament has been anything but smooth for the Detroit native.
Walker battled foot injuries in late January that cost him two games, but he returned with a point to prove for the Golden Flashes (22-13), who will do battle with the third-seeded UCLA Bruins in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Sacramento, California, tonight.
“We had an up-and-down season and we started bad, but through the end, we started to carry things over, and now, we're here,” Walker said at NCAA Tournament media day Thursday night. “We are trying to continue on our wins as we go along.”
A 6-foot-1, 180-pound product of Romulus High School in Detroit, Walker did not have any other Division I scholarship offers other than Kent State at the early signing period. And when the opportunity to sign arrived, despite “interest” from several other schools in Michigan and Ohio, Walker chose to attend Kent State.
And by going through doubts despite successful play at Romulus High School as well as on the AAU circuit, Walker used that, along with the support of his coaches and teammates, to fight through the injury issues and return ready to make an impact.
“When I had my injuries for the past few months, my coaches and teammates were just telling me to sit back, take notice of the game and watch our players and just see how things are and take rests, and soon enough, just get back to myself,” Walker recalled.
“Once I got back, there were a few games where I was shaky and stuff like that, but as I continued on, it got better for me.”
Walker put that confidence on full display in the MAC Tournament last week.
Walker doubled his scoring average in two of Kent State’s four MAC Tournament games, totaled 80 points and led the Golden Flashes to four victories over a six-day span on the way to a Most Valuable Player performance for the MAC champions.
With 10.8 seconds left in regulation of the semifinals, Walker secured a rebound off of a missed free throw, sprinted down the left sideline the length of the floor and into the lane, where he finished off a running jumper that propelled the Golden Flashes to a 68-66 victory over the Ohio Bobcats.
In the championship win over Akron, Walker led the way for the Golden Flashes with a 30-point performance on 11-of-18 shooting, including a two-for-seven showing from three-point range and perfect six-for-six mark at the free-throw line.
“I am going to carry that onto this next game, giving my teammates credit,” Walker said. “They believed in me and believe that I can make shots and stuff like that, so it's going to be real nice.”