Cleveland State faces its biggest basketball game in two decades as The Ohio State University comes to Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday. Sure, CSU has played better opponents in the past, most notably last season's trip to Columbus to face these same Buckeyes. But for the rebuilding Vikings, the chance to recapture the magical relationship they once shared with Cleveland's rabid fan base has never been so close.
After making an improbable run to the NCAA sweet sixteen in 1986, CSU has been pushed off the front page of Cleveland's sports scene. Since head coach Kevin Mackey's arrest and dismissal following the 1990 season, CSU has only managed the occasional blip on the radar. An embarrassing arrest here and there, a winning season or two, and a near upset of North Carolina are all that's left to show for the program's past two decades.
Through coaches Mike Boyd, Rollie Massimino, and Mike Garland, CSU never made a positive breakthrough with the community, and most importantly, on the court. Rock bottom came in the form of a 10-18 record in 2005-06, marking CSU's fifth straight losing season and tenth in the previous 13 campaigns.
CSU looked to turn it around with the hiring of Gary Waters heading into the 2006-07 season. The veteran coach returned to Northeast Ohio with some promises and a plan. Separating Waters from his predecessors, the promises are ringing true and his plan is showing signs of coming to fruition.
At Waters' introductory press conference he talked about the importance of recruiting the Cleveland area. He inherited a roster that included only one scholarship player from Ohio, with zero hailing from Cuyahoga County. In one season, Waters has permeated the roster with local talent. The roster now includes eight Ohio players, five from Cuyahoga County.
At that same press conference, Waters stated his desire to bring a defensive mindset and hardnosed style of play back to the shores of Lake Erie. He also talked about the importance of building a fan base and making the community appreciate the only division one college in town.
Putting his plan to work, the 2007-08 Vikings are a scrappy bunch that have already won two games against power conference teams, with early season victories over South Florida of the Big East and Florida State of the ACC. The defensive mindset is obvious, as CSU is holding opponents to 41 percent shooting and forcing 17 turnovers per game.
As Waters continues to move down his checklist of promises, the program has focused its attention on the Ohio State game as the next big opportunity to leap back into the forefront of Cleveland sports.
The Vikings are coming off their best game of the season, a 77-54 beating of Horizon League rival Youngstown State in front of the biggest home crowd of the year. CSU shot .646 (31-48) from the field and handed out 27 assists on the 31 baskets while holding YSU to .358 (19-58) shooting. The victory moved CSU to 7-3 overall.
The Vikings are led by explosive point guard Cedric Jackson (Columbus, N.J.). The junior transfer from St. John's leads the team in scoring (17.9), assists (5.4) and steals (3.1). Pre-season All-Horizon League forward J'Nathan Bullock has lived up to the hype so far this season. The 6'5" junior (Flint, MI) is second in scoring (14.5) while leading the team in rebounds (6.4). Adding a scoring punch as the sixth man is sophomore guard Joe Davis (Warrensville Heights, OH). Davis comes off the bench to average 10.3 per game.
The three top scorers now look to lead a young but talented roster into its biggest game of the rebuilding effort. For a team looking to reverse last season's 10-21 record, one game in December won't decide if they make the NCAA tournament.
What the game does offer is a glimmer of hope for a resurgent program, an opportunity for Gary Waters and his players to show off their exciting style of basketball, and a chance for the fans of Cleveland to realize that finally, there's again a positive reason to pay attention to Cleveland State basketball.
News & Notes:
Deyontae Culpepper, a 6'8" senior PF/C from Rhodes High School in Cleveland, has signed to play at CSU starting next season. Culpepper will be the only incoming freshman for 2008, but his early commitment has allowed the coaches to focus their attention on the recruiting class of 2009. CSU currently has six juniors on its roster, so there will be plenty of scholarships available.
Sophomore guard Eric Schiele becomes eligible starting with Tuesday's game. The former High School All-American averaged 39.6 ppg as a senior at Waterloo High School. Schiele had to sit out after transferring from a prep school.
CSU's only victory over Ohio State came at Quicken Loans Arena as part of the 1994 Rock-N-Roll Shootout. Cleveland State is 1-5 all time against the Buckeyes.