Cleveland State might be forgiven for feeling its way through the non-conference schedule, given the new coaching staff and the need to have the new players and upperclassmen start gelling as a team. However, with the slate head coach Dennis Felton and company put together in the ramp-up to the Horizon League games, the Vikings have been dropped into the deep end of the pool and are asked to swim back to shore.
In the first six games, it’s clear that learning to win has been a lesson that has seen Cleveland State take steps forward and backward. Taking away the blowout at Rutgers, and you can see two, perhaps three games early on that could have been winnable for the Vikings.
But when you have a team with a new coach and whose veterans have suffered from back-to-back 20-loss seasons, the road to completing the final lessons in winning will be winding and, at times, full of potholes.
The primary lesson, at least in the early going, has been the ability to close out games. Against East Carolina and Central Connecticut State, Cleveland State was leading in the final minutes. And, in both cases, offensive outages, coupled with defensive lapses, proved to be too much to overcome at the end of both contests.
As frustrating as the losses have been (and you were all warned about this, by the way), you have gotten the sense that it was only a matter of time before the Vikings were finally able to get over the hump. And Wednesday’s match-up against Arkansas State was a sign that things were taking a turn in the right direction.
Sure, Cleveland State had kept letting the Red Wolves back into the game, as it had against ECU and CCSU. But this time, the Vikings hunkered down, and bolstered by a key block by Bobby Word and a defensive set that led to an unforced error by Arkansas State, CSU came through with the 75-72 victory.
“We talked about the first year and how important it is to build your culture and set a high standard of excellence,” Felton told The News-Herald after the win.
If any of this sounds familiar to longtime Cleveland State fans, that’s likely because the Vikings have been in this situation before. It was 11 years ago, to be exact when Gary Waters took over as the head coach after years of poor-to-middling teams capped by four straight 20-loss seasons.
That, as it seems, is where the similarities end. Waters, in his first year, was given the latitude to ease Cleveland State back on the winning track, bringing transfers like Cedric Jackson, Chris Moore and George Tandy into the mix, starting in Year Two.
Felton, on the other hand, has taken a different approach. First, he’s called on the senior holdovers from the Waters era, specifically Word, Kenny Carpenter and Anthony Wright, to step up in the starting rotation. In addition, lending to a sense of urgency, the new players he’s brought into the mix, freshmen Stefan Kenic and Tyree Appleby, along with Northern Illinois transfer Dontel Highsmith, have played big minutes so far this season.
While the Arkansas State win was a much-needed boost, the non-conference road doesn’t get any easier, which includes tough road contests against Top 25 teams Cincinnati and Michigan State. That said, the Vikings appear to be in a better position than preseason pundits saw them, and with the volatility of the Horizon League, don’t be surprised if they pull out some wins nobody expected.
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Image via CSUVikings.com