CLEVELAND – It’s “Hoopy Hour” at Cleveland State, and as a handful of fans play Cornhole, while downing $2 draft beers overlooking the court, one of the nation’s remaining unbeaten teams is doing layups as Eminem’s “Not Afraid” echoes through the nearly empty arena.
“Not Afraid?” Well, after two hours and a 32-point win, this unheralded, unselfish squad was “Not Defeated” either.
Led by star senior guard Norris Cole, the 11-0 Cleveland State Vikings are loaded with experience, depth and all kinds of confidence. On the cusp of cracking the AP’s Top 25 poll, Cleveland State may be good enough to follow fellow Horizon League member, Butler, by making a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
“There’s a chance,” said the clutch Cole, averaging 21.5 points per game. “I’m not going to look too far ahead. But if we keep working hard, who knows what can happen.”
Gary Waters knows. Now in his fifth season as coach after resigning at Rutgers, Waters, Cleveland State’s perpetually positive coach, has five starters and nine letter-winners back from a 16-17 team that played a vicious nonconference schedule last season. One year after beating out Butler for the Horizon crown and then stunning Wake Forest in the NCAA tournament, the Vikings took their lumps.
Now, they’re giving a few back.
“When we defend,” Waters said, “we can play with anybody.”
You see? LeBron James didn’t deflate all the basketballs in this proud city before going south, after all.
Already this season, Cleveland State has defeated Akron, Kent State, St. Bonaventure, Iona and Robert Morris, an NCAA tournament team the last two seasons. Last weekend, the Vikings took their annual in-league road trip to Wisconsin, and beat both UW Green Bay and UW Milwaukee, teams they had beaten once in 20 tries.
The Vikings, who enter this weekend’s game at Sam Houston State (5-2) ranked No. 16 in the RPI, visit West Virginia (6-2) next week with a chance to avenge last year’s final-second loss.
Waters, a veteran who has been to the postseason eight times with Kent State, Rutgers and Cleveland State, has seen plenty, and isn’t surprised by his team’s fast start.
“Our goal was to go into West Virginia 12-0,” Waters said. “Our guys really made a commitment this summer. They didn’t enjoy the summer. I’m not saying it was bad for them, but they made a commitment to get better. They didn’t just go in and work on their shots and lift. They conditioned – and did it themselves. Their goal was to win a championship. If it happens, it’s something they deserve.”