LEXINGTON, Ky. -They issued no apologies, sought no concessions and did not act like intruders.
Kent State's Golden Flashes may be mid-major orphans playing out of the Mid-American Conference. They may even be playing over their heads here in the South Regional.
But testimonials yesterday by friend and foe alike struck a common chord: Kent State belongs in the round of 16 with the likes of Duke, Indiana and Pittsburgh. Most prominent was a ringing endorsement from Mike Krzyzewski, who coaches Duke's defending national champions.
"What you have is a team that's really tough," he said. "They believe in themselves and they believe in the coaching staff. They're very experienced. ... It wouldn't shock me to see Kent State go to the Final Four; they're that good a team."
Not if Krzyzewski has anything to say about it, but that's a story for another day. Tonight, the 10th-seeded Golden Flashes square off against third-seeded Pittsburgh in a South Regional semifinal featuring a pair of 29-5 teams at Rupp Arena.
Top-seeded Duke, the heavy favorite to leave here with yet another Final Four reservation, plays fifth-seeded Indiana in tonight's first game.
Party crashers or not, Kent State earned the respect of Pittsburgh with last week's wipeout of Oklahoma State and Alabama.
"The first two rounds, I think their opponents underestimated them," said Panthers point guard Brendin Knight. "They deserve as much respect in this tournament as any other team. They just don't get it.
"We're going to give them the respect they deserve. The teams in the first and second rounds didn't do that and now they're sitting at home watching."
Kent State's success story is no overnight tale, though. The Golden Flashes upset Indiana in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, only to fall to Cincinnati.
This year, a senior-dominated team had to adjust to a new coach when Gary Waters left for Rutgers. After a 4-4 start and more than a little soul-searching, Kent State rediscovered its rhythm and its winning ways.
The Golden Flashes bring a 20-game winning streak to Lexington, longest in the nation. In Trevor Huffman, they've got a point guard who "could play anywhere in the country," according to Pittsburgh coach Ben Howland. In 6-foot-3 Demetric Shaw, they've got a two-time defensive player of the year in the MAC who likely will draw the assignment to guard Knight.
On a team with a 7-footer (sophomore John Edwards) coming off the bench, Kent State found the equalizer insider with 6-5 junior transfer Antonio Gates.
Kent State is Gates' fourth college - and third team after sitting last season out at the College of the Sequoias in California. But he appears to have found a home at last.
"Antonio Gates has been a difference-maker," said Kent State coach Stan Heath. "He's taken a good team and made a good team even more unique."
Collecting 8.1 rebounds a game is the difference Gates has made, turning a one-time weakness into an asset for the Golden Flashes.
Still, this is a team whose real strength lies on the perimeter, where Huffman (16.2 points a game) and Andrew Mitchell (15.2) provide a powerful outside game.
It's a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Back in December, when Kent State struggled, the parts didn't add up. Heath brought a new system with him from Michigan State, where he was an assistant under Tom Izzo, and not everyone bought into it at first.
"We all had personal goals we wanted to reach," Mitchell said. "One thing we realized was, he coached in three Final Fours [with Michigan State]. We wanted to elevate our game and get to that level, and he was the one guy who had that experience."
What got Huffman's attention was the day Heath pulled out a tape of Duke to show how enthusiastically the Blue Devils played.
"I thought I hadn't been like that in a long time," Huffman said. "There were little things [the coaching staff] showed us we weren't doing, and that really helped."
As fate and the NCAA would have it, if Kent State gets past Pittsburgh tonight, it will almost certainly get a chance to measure itself against Duke again in Saturday's regional final.