With just two games left in the regular season, the Vikings have put themselves in a position to win the Horizon League outright, something that didn’t seem possible two weeks ago. If you haven’t been following, lets recap.
Cleveland State has been on top of the league most of the year, yet their two, two-game losing streaks came at the most in-opportune times. They started 4-0 in the league and threatened to run away with things early, but then came the losses at Butler and at Valparaiso, which brought them back to the pack. Meanwhile, the more CSU would win, deeper that pack would become. Between Valpo, Butler, Wright State, Milwaukee, and at times Detroit, its been a gauntlet. There have been no easy-outs in this league. Just ask Butler, who currently sits 1/2 game behind CSU. Their loss at Youngstown State may be the killer to their season and what costs them hosting the conference tournament.
But back to the Vikings. After the two-game losing streak came a six-game winning streak, which pushed them back to the top of the HL at 10-2. The win over Valpo on a Thursday night at the Wolstein Center was thought to propel them to a league title. Instead, they got their lunch handed to them by Butler (a second time) in-front of a sellout crowd and a National TV audience. They hang-over lasted another two days when the Vikings travelled to Detroit. Playing their third game in five nights, CSU lost a heart-breaker to the Titans and fell into a three-way tie for second in the HL. Their once large margin for error had become almost nill. For the Vikings to take the league title and get not just the double bye, but the home-court advantage in the tournament, they would have to win out AND get a lot of help.
Somehow, it actually worked out in favor of a Cleveland team. CSU took out Youngstown State behind Norris Cole’s signature performance (41 points, 20 rebounds, 9 assists). Then in another “biggest game of the season” tilts that we have seen so many times over the last month, the Vikings went to Wright State and pulled off a huge 74-72 win to keep pace with first place Valparaiso. Meanwhile, Valpo has gone into a slump at the wrong time, losing two of three including Monday night’s OT loss in Green Bay. While all of this was going on, Butler has quietly won six in a row to after their debacle in Youngstown. But the Bulldogs aren’t even the hottest team in the Horizon League.
That distinction belongs to Milwaukee. Rob Jeter’s Panthers started slowly but have surged into a third place tie by winning seven straight conference games. They are the team nobody wants to play. And who plays them next? Your first place Cleveland State Vikings.
Tonight’s Panthers/Vikings game could determine CSU’s postseason tournament fate. If they win, all they would need to do is beat seventh place Green Bay at home on Saturday and the #1 seed and home court is all theirs. A loss could have them spiraling all the way down to a #4 seed and the need to play four games to win the tournament, as opposed to two. Butler’s sweep of CSU could become costly in terms of tie-breaking scenarios.
The bottom line is that Gary Waters club controls its own destiny and it is on their shoulders to bring it home; literally.
photo via John Kuntz/PD