CSU led Vandy by as many as 16 in the first half, and with under one minute to go in the game they found themselves up 15 before making it a final at 71-58. The Nashville crowd was shocked into silence for most of the afternoon, and left the arena stunned, but you should be neither shocked nor surprised by this result. The Cleveland State Vikings are absolutely for real this season. They will be ranked in top-25 shortly, and stay there for most of the year.
I didn’t just throw out that top-25 thing there because CSU beat the highest ranked opponent ever in school history yesterday, or because Sunday’s win marked the fifth time a Gary Waters coached team has beaten a ranked opponent since he came on the scene in 2006 either. I threw it out there because I’m completely serious, and because this team is really that good.
They didn’t even play close to a perfect game on Sunday and beat the 7th ranked team in the country. They didn’t have one guy just come in for the Vikes and go off for an unstoppable performance of 40 or 50 points which could probably not be duplicated either. They simply beat a top-1o SEC team on the road as soundly as you can beat somebody, and they looked like they expected to do just that when they stepped on the floor. Six Vikings scored 7 or more points, 9 guys played 14 or more minutes, and CSU was just tougher and looked better than Vanderbilt all day long.
I know it seems crazy that CSU even had a 1st round draft pick, and the idea that they could lose a 1st round draft pick and then be better the next season almost seems incomprehensible, but I’m telling you that they are better than the 27-9 team last season who tied for a share of the Horizon League title. They still return five starters anyways, even without Norris Cole. D’Aundray Brown, who played huge minutes as a sophomore on the team that beat Johnny Flynn’s Syracuse squad during the regular season, Butler in the conference title game, and Wake Forest in the NCAA tournament two seasons ago, is back and healthy. He missed all of last season, was inevitably red-shirted, and now joins last year’s starters Tre Harmon, Jeremy Montgomery, Aaron Pogue and Tim Kamczyc in starting group that is both experienced and talented.
Brown is in my opinion the most under-rated Division I player in all of the Midwest, and he led CSU in the scoring yesterday with 18. The do everything guard who can defend four positions on the floor only needed 10 shots (6 of 10) to get there too, and added 8 rebounds and 7 steals as well. Harmon finished with 11, Montgomery finished with 10, Pogue added 8, and two other players scored 7. Ten guys played in total for Gary Waters yesterday too, something that never happened last season.
“We’re not used to getting that kind of bench production, but these young guys can play,” Waters said. “They were able to provide us with not only scoring, but they rebounded, played defense and I didn’t think we lost anything in our level of play with them on the floor.”
One of those guys who can really play coming off this bench is the 6’8″ Freshman from Cleveland Central Catholic, Anton Grady. Grady played 22 minutes yesterday, blocked 4 shots, grabbed 4 rebounds, and also added 2 assists and a steal in some very active and meaningful minutes. He is a kid who was recruited by everybody from Tom Izzo on down at one point in his High School career, and he is a high major talent who brings a ton of athleticism and upside to this team in his first season.
The Vikings need that depth too, especially with the style of in-your-face-defense that Coach Waters employs all game long. A style of play that forced Coach Kevin Stallings’ group to turn it over 20 times, while only converting on 6 assists as a team for the game.
“We continually tried to cross the ball over in front of them, and they just continually kept taking it,” Stallings said. “I wish they would have sent us a Federal Express package that said, ‘We are going to take your ball if you cross it over in front of us because we’re good.’ Apparently we didn’t get the memo because we kept doing it. I really liked how they played.”
There’s no way anybody could’ve have watched yesterday and not liked how CSU played. They are good, and they will keep doing it all season long. It should be fun Cleveland, be sure to tune in.