Cleveland State returns to the Wolstein Center this week for the first time since a heart-breaking two point loss to West Virginia. The Vikings bounced back into the win column last weekend at in-state rival Youngstown State with a commanding 70-48 victory. The win moved the Vikes to 5-10 overall and 1-2 in the Horizon League. After playing two conference games in early December, the league portion of the schedule is now in full force as Loyola and UIC come to town this weekend.
The Vikings overall record doesn't look as bad when you consider half of the losses came to BCS teams in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio State and Kansas State, with three of those teams being nationally ranked. Making no excuses, the Vikings also picked up two preseason wins against non-Division one teams. The adjusted record brings the young Vikings to a more respectable 3-5 against comparable mid-major teams.
Gary Waters has taken a small and inexperienced lineup and made it even smaller by inserting sixth man Jeremy Montgomery into a new-look four guard lineup. Montgomery replaces the power forward combo of Jared Cunningham and Nigel Ajere in the starting five. Ajere started two-of-three before taking an indefinite leave from the team do to personal reasons. Cunningham has been in-and-out of the starting lineup, but he seems to play better off the bench, including 13 in the recent win over YSU.
Montgomery moved his way into the starting lineup with strong showings at Ohio State (25 points, 5-8 from three) and Kansas State (20 points 6-10 from the field) and responded with 12 points on four three-pointers as a starter against YSU.
Thursday 7 p.m. vs. Loyola-Chicago (11-3, 2-2)
Loyola is off to a surprisingly hot start after being picked to finish dead last in the Horizon League. The Ramblers only losses are to Kansas State and in conference to second and third place Green Bay and Detroit respectively.
Loyola brings a balanced attack to the court as seven players average over 20 minutes per game with an eighth averaging more than 15. Three Ramblers contribute double-digit scoring, including sixth man Walt Gibler and his team-leading 11.7.
The only returning starter for the Ramblers coming into the season was Gibler, but with the sophomore from Cincinnati now coming off the bench, Loyola broke in five new starters to start the season. That group has now started all 14 games and the only senior in the group is 6-7, 240-pound Andy Polka who leads the league with 9.5 rebounds per game. Polka did start the first nine games of last season before going down with an ankle injury.
Freshman Ben Averkamp was the Wisconsin high school player of the year last year and averages 7 points and 5 rebounds on 48-percent shooting. The freshman big man will provide a mismatch for the Vikings new four guard offense. At 6-4, 185-pounds, D'Aundray Brown is essentially playing power forward and it will be his job to contain the 6-8, 230-pound Averkamp.
Saturday 5:30 p.m. vs. Illinois-Chicago (5-9, 1-3)
UIC has played a pretty tough schedule to start the season and boasts a victory over Oregon State of the Pac 10 and also knocked off second place Detroit for the Titans only conference loss.
The Flames are similar to CSU in that they lost two all-conference players from last year and have to learn to play without their stars.
UIC is led by junior guard Robo Kreps at 15.7 points per game which is good for fifth best in the league. Kreps can stretch the court with his shooting and has eclipsed the 20-point barrier four times this season. Kreps also provides an experienced leader, having appeared in 78 games so far in his career, starting 45.
Sophomore Zavion Neely is second on the team in scoring at 13.4 per game. The native of Chicago led the Flames with 14 points in its last game against Wright State.
Texas Tech transfer Jeremy Buttell leads UIC in rebounding with 6.4 per game while also chipping in 8.4 points.
The Flames have gone big at times and started 6-11, 270-pound JUCO transfer K.C. Robbins along with the 6-7 Button and 6-7 forward Brad Birton.
The Vikings will have to draw upon their experiences from the West Virginia game against this lineup as CSU had great success pressing the taller Mountaineers and almost pulled off the upset.