Cleveland State is off to a rough 4-7 start as the team learns to play without departed stars Cedric Jackson and J'Nathan Bullock. Gary Waters' team is as talented as ever, but the team has struggled to find a go-to guy in the early going.
Junior Norris Cole has taken over as the leading scorer for the Vikings, averaging 16.2 points per game on .468 shooting and .359 from beyond the arc. Although Cole's play has been spectacular at times, including 38 points against Florida A&M, he has struggled to set up the offense as opposing defenses have game planned to stop him. When the defense is able to slow down Cole, the Vikings have been prone to long and ugly dry spells on the offensive end of the court.
During Cole's first two years in the program, he excelled at coming off screens and playing off the ball as Jackson created and found the open shots. Now Cole has been asked to be the creator and it has been a work in progress.
The Vikings recruited JUCO All-American PG Lance James to come in and start but James struggled mightily during the early season before breaking a foot in practice. The unfortunate situation leaves Cole as the starter at the point as sophomores Trey Harmon (11.6 ppg) and Jeremy Montgomery (8.5 ppg) play off the ball in Cole's former role.
The other question for the Vikings entering the season was the front line. CSU lost all four big men from last season's rotation and were counting on two JUCO transfers (Jared Cunningham and Kevin Anderson) and two players that sat out last season (Aaron Pogue as a transfer and Nigel Ajere as a partial qualifier) to fill the void.
As one can expect in a situation such as this, the play from the big men has been inconsistent. Pogue has started every game and is averaging a solid 7.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on .474 shooting but he has struggled with foul trouble. Cunningham started the first nine games and is averaging 7.9 points per game and can stretch the floor with his shooting touch (9-28 .321 from three), but the 6-9, 225-pound forward is averaging a disappointing 3.5 rebounds per contest.
Sophomore Nigel Ajere has replaced Cunningham in the starting lineup for the past two games and has show promise, averaging 10 points and 5 rebounds in the two starts, but the 6-6 Ajere is still adjusting to the college game while shaking off the rust from a year away from the game.
In order to take the pressure off Cole, it is important for the front court to continue its development to give the Vikings the ability to score when Cole's drives are cut off and when the outside shots of Harmon and Montgomery aren't falling.
CSU dropped its last game 78-70 to Robert Morris. With the game tied at 42 in the second half, the Vikings struggling through one of its long scoring droughts, this one lasting more than five minutes. Robert Morris had control of the game with a 12 point lead with under 8 minutes to play by the time CSU hit another field goal.
In the Robert Morris game, the Vikings front court was outscored 34-11 by the skinniest power forward/center combination in the history of organized basketball that averaged 6-8, 200-pounds.
The bottom line is, Pogue, Ajere and Cunningham are going to have to form a solid and consistent rotation in order for the Vikings to turn the season around as they head into conference play.
More specifically, if the Vikings hope to pull the upset on Saturday against West Virginia in the John McClendon Scholarship Game, all three players are going to have to play the best game of the season because the Mountaineers are big and tough on the inside.
West Virginia comes into the Wolstein Center at 7-0 and ranked sixth in the nation. The Mountaineers only lost one player off last season's 23-12 NCAA Tournament participant and returned projected lottery pick Devin Ebanks.
West Virginia entered the season as a favorite in the Big East and they have lived up to expectations so far, albeit against a cupcake schedule. The only BCS team on the early-season schedule was Texas A&M, which gave the Mountaineers its only competitive game in a 73-66 West Virginia victory.
Entering the season, the star of the team was Ebanks, a 6-9 215-pound sophomore, but the athletic forward has only played in three games so far this season. Ebanks missed the first three games of the season due to personal issues. Ebanks returned for three straight games, including making a start in the third game, but missed the Mountaineers last game against Coppin State with a sore left hand.
In the three games he's played, Ebanks is averaging 10.7 points and 6 rebounds per game while rounding back into game shape.
Senior forward Da'Sean Butler has stepped up in Ebanks' absence to take over as the go-to guy for West Virginia. A talented four-year player that projects as a late first/early second round pick in the NBA draft, Butler is an all-around force for the Mountaineers. The 6-7, 230-pound senior is averaging 16.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game while shooting .483 from the floor and .344 (11-32) from three.
Last year's sixth man, Kevin Jones, has stepped into the starting lineup to replace Ebanks and has responded in a big way. The 6-8, 250-pound sophomore leads the team with 7.0 rebounds per game and adds 14.4 points on .542 shooting from the floor.
The leading guard for West Virginia is Darryl Bryant. A 6-2 sophomore out of Brooklyn, NY, Bryant is averaging 10.4 points, 4.1 assists and 1.2 steals per game while balancing the inside presence of the Mountaineers with an ability to create on the drive.
The strength of the Mountaineers is their size and depth. The offense hasn't missed a beat with Ebanks missing so much time and last year's starting point guard, Joe Mazzulla, is now coming off the bench after struggling with injuries.
In the game that Ebanks started, Bog Huggins played four forwards around Bryant and moved. JUCO player of the year Casey Mitchell into a sixth man role. This lineup gives the Mountaineers a formidable lineup that averages 6-8, 235-pounds across the four man front line that features Ebanks, Butler, Jones and senior leader Wellington Smith.
It will be a tough test for the Vikings but one thing I've learned over the past four years is that you can never count a Gary Waters coached team out of any game. CSU is expecting a big crowd for the 2 p.m. tip and a good start could get the hometown crowd into the game and make things interesting at the Wolstein Center.
Great Deals at the Wolstein Center
Tickets to the game are still available by calling 216-687-4848. One ticket gets you two games as the CSU Women take on Indiana following the men's game at 4 p.m. The women were picked to finish second in the Horizon League and feature pre-season player of the year Kailey Kline.
Saturday also features dollar hotdogs and a free KidZone at the Wolstein Center and the first 1,000 fans receive a free t-shirt.