What has happened to the Cleveland State Vikings?
Once the darlings of the Horizon League, the wheels have come off of the proverbial wagon and Head Coach Gary Waters has been left scratching his head, wondering how things turned so quickly towards the negative.
The Vikes were 20-4, 10-2 in the conference and battling it out with Valparaiso for league supremacy. Then Valpo came to town on February 9th for the ultimate showdown. The winner would be in control their own destiny for the regular season title as well as the inside track to host the Conference Tournament. Instead of coming out hyped on their home floor where they have been so good during the Waters era, CSU laid a major egg, being blown out in front of their biggest crowd of the season. The loss gave Valpo essentially a two-game lead on Cleveland State, since they had now beaten them twice.
Little did we know that was just going to be the beginning of the Vikings swoon.
Two days later, in front of a National TV audience, Butler came into the Wolstein Center and stole a game the Vikings should have won. For the second straight game, the shooting was brutal. They didn’t have time to recover as they had to travel to Milwaukee last Tuesday, a team that CSU caught for first place in the Horizon League a month ago. The only good thing that came out of this game was the offense woke up. The Vikings put 84 points on the board, but trailed most of the game before tying things up in the last minute. The 13-point second half comeback was all for naught as Freshman Marlin Mason was whistled for a phantom foul with one second left on the clock. A game that looked as though would head to overtime with CSU carrying the momentum, turned into a two-point loss on free throws.
The spiral downward took on a life of its own over the weekend. In the Bracket Buster game, CSU was pitted against CAA leader Drexel. This was a good measuring stick for the Vikings and a chance to clear their heads against a team not in their league and hopefully work out the kinks. Instead, Drexel pasted CSU on their home floor by 20.
It didn’t stop there.
Facing a must-win on the road against under .500 Green Bay on Tuesday night, the Vikings again got clipped. Once a lock for the Horizon League double-bye, CSU now sits in third place, a half game behind Butler at 10-6. Detroit, the preseason pick to win the conference, has turned their game up while CSU has been faltering. The Titans, tied with the Vikings for third at 10-6, ride into the Wolstein Center on a five-game winning streak for tonight’s pivotal matchup. They are loaded with talent, including former McDonalds All-American PG Ray McCallum Jr., all-conference caliber players in Center Eli Holman and SG Chase Simon, and one of the best leapers in the country in Doug Anderson.
They seem to be catching the Vikings at the right time. The winner of this contest will be in a second place tie with Butler. CSU split with the Bulldogs, while Detroit swept them. Butler’s final conference game is Saturday on the road against league champion Valparaiso, CSU finishes at home against Wright State, and Detroit heads to Youngstown State.
What cannot go unmentioned is the loss of Senior forward D’Aundray Brown. The beginning of the five-game slide came as the team’s leading scorer and top defender re-aggravated his injured groin. He played just eight first half minutes in the loss to Valpo and hasn’t seen the floor since. Brown has yet to be ruled out for tonight’s game against Detroit, but he is more of a game-time decision as of now. This club deeply misses not just his play on the floor, but his leadership. This is a kid who has been through the wars. He along with fellow Seniors Jeremy Montgomery and Tre Harmon all played key roles on CSU’s 2009 NCAA Tournament team. They are the heart and soul of this group. But the Vikings have looked like a loss bunch without their leader.
Whether Brown can come back and play, the rest of the group needs to step up and win these next two games. Getting the double-bye in the conference tournament is of the utmost importance. Winning out at worst will put them in the top three, giving them a first round bye (The top two teams get double byes, the third place gets a first round bye). Two losses could drop CSU all the way down as low as seventh in the muddled middle of the Horizon League standings, meaning they would have to win three games just to get to the title game.
Let’s hope the Vikings can right the ship starting tonight, take care of business Saturday against Wright State, and build on that momentum into the Horizon League tournament.