There is a lot of losing going on around Cleveland lately, and we – as sports fans in this town – could all do ourselves a collective favor by turning some attention towards Gary Waters and his CSU Vikings Hoop Squad.
To say they’re on a tear would be putting it lightly. Through sixteen games, the Vikings’ record reads 15-1 (4-0 within the Horizon League), and they are heading to Hinkle Field House for a game against the team who lost to Duke in the NCAA finals last season.
Whether they win that one at Butler or not, the national attention on the Vikings has been generated across the college basketball landscape. Recent (January 2nd) RPI rankings had the Vikings at No. 27 overall, and they have been ranked No. 1 in the Mid-Major Polls for several weeks. Both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Polls have noticed as well, placing the Vikes at Nos. 37 and 38, respectively.
A win on Friday could vault Cleveland State into the Top 25, but the winning hasn’t been an accident, per head coach Gary Waters, who was kind enough to take some time with WFNY this week. Per Waters, it is a result of a commitment to be better, made by his team this past summer.
“What people don’t realize a year ago is that we played some good ball down the stretch,” Waters said via phone earlier this week. “We were playing at a high level, we made some adjustments, we made some changes, and our team became better as last season went on.”
Unfortunately, key Viking contributors sustained injury in the waining weeks. Guard D’Aundray Brown sustained injury in the final five games, guard Tre Harmon suffered concussion, and forward Aaron Pogue was forced to play with a broken hand for final last two contests.
“With those injuries we struggled some,” said Waters. “But what playing well for that stretch before the injuries did last season was leave a taste in [the team's] mouth for the future. They said to themselves, ‘We can win a championship.’ So this off-season, each and every one of them stayed for the entire summer, and made the commitment to the team to get better, and that’s what they did.”
To this group’s credit, they have done so without arguably the team’s second best player in Brown, which makes it even more remarkable. The top rebounder and defensive player from a year ago, Brown has not played yet this season, sidelined with the same hand injury that sat him down for the last five games a year ago.
Word is he could be cleared medically by late January, and Coach Waters, Brown, and the CSU basketball family have a decision to make: Do you medically red-shirt Brown this season, bring him back with a promising group or returning starters next year alongside Jeremy Montgomery and Harmon, or does he jump in now and add what could be the final piece on the best team in school history?
Tough call, one Waters says he’s currently discussing with all involved parties.
“We’re still debating that,” said Waters. “If we find out that he’ll only have a chance for eight, nine, single-digit games to play, I’m not sure that would be worth it for an entire year [of eligibility]. At that point then, it would be basically on him. It would be if wanted to come back to help the team, to win a championship and get to the NCAA [tournament].”
A couple things play into the decision beyond what is on the outside, explained Waters. For starters, does D’Aundray want to attend another year of school? He is scheduled to graduate at the end of this semester, so the commitment would be beyond the game of basketball. And secondly, does he feel as if he can help the team?
“If he doesn’t feel he can help the team, I’m going to tell him, no you shouldn’t come back,” said Waters. “Because, even though he’s cleared in two weeks, he may not be mentally and physically ready yet to help the team. It takes a little while to get back in the swing of things. So if you add a couple weeks on to that, now you’re talking about six or seven games, so you have to make a decision on that.”
One decision the Vikings don’t have to make is who gets the ball at crunch time, that’s Senior Guard Norris Cole. Cole’s the favorite for Horizon League Player of the Year at 20.9 points per game thus far, and he was recently nominated for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s top point guard.
So, just how good is Cole?
“Norris Cole is the best guard in the Midwest, hands down,” Waters stated. “He’s that good of a point guard. He handles the show, he shoots the shots, and the one thing that goes unnoticed is that he defends everyone’s best guard and shuts them down completely. So, Norris is really a player that a lot of people are really underestimating. But at the same token, I don’t think the [NBA scouts] are underestimating him. They do their due diligence, they evaluate everyone to the best of their ability, and he is high on their radar.”
As compared to the last point guard Waters sent to the NBA, former Cavalier Cedric Jackson, Waters offered the following:
“Cedric was a bigger, stronger guard and he really helped Norris in his development,” Waters said. “I just think Norris brings more to the table though, where he can shoot it better, and I even think Norris is a better defender than Cedric to some degree.”
The same Cedric Jackson who was the Horizon League’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.
In the NCAA tournament, more times than not, the team with the best point guard moves on. With this being the case, there could be something special in motion right now…in Cleveland…and it just might help cheer us up some, if we pay attention.
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)