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Cleveland State: An Underdog to Watch

Cleveland State faces one of the biggest series in recent memory this weekend against Wright State

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 09 Northern Kentucky at Cleveland State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Cleveland State Vikings aren’t necessarily a powerhouse when it comes to Horizon League basketball. With only one tournament appearance since joining the conference in 1995, the Vikings wouldn’t typically be thought of as a team competing for the league title, and the media shows that. The team was ranked seventh in the preseason poll, behind the likes of Oakland, UIC, and typical top dog in the Horizon, NKU. But this isn’t any typical year for the Vikings.

Cleveland State started off rough, losing all three of their non-conference games to Toledo, Ohio, and Ohio State. Once they hit conference play, though, something clicked. Scheduling in the time of COVID-19 did work out in their favor. After their games with Robert Morris got canceled, their first conference opponent ended up being Fort Wayne. They just got by the Mastodons in their first game, but shot a season best 47.2% from the floor. They only went up from there, knocking off Fort Wayne again the next day, shooting an even better 54.9% from the field on just 51 shots, their lowest single game shot total of the season so far.

Then came the first true league test of the season, as the Vikings had to play Youngstown State. The Penguins came into the game as the second place team in the preseason poll, and a split with another conference powerhouse in Northern Kentucky. The Vikings didn’t see any issue with this, and dominated in the first game in Cleveland, beating Youngstown State 87-69, once again setting a season best for field goal percentage at 55.4%. Shooting wasn’t the only bright spot of that day; the Vikings had only eight turnovers, a season low for them. Minimizing mistakes were key against the Penguins, and Cleveland State did that well.

With the Horizon League doing doubleheader style scheduling, it wasn’t long before these two teams had another go at each other. The next day was much of the same for the Vikings; they shot well, defended well, and made very little mistakes, riding that to an 81-74 victory. With that win, a team that wasn’t thought of as much before the season was off to a 4-0 start, sweeping a top team in the conference.

Playing up to your competition (and playing down to your competition) is something that the Vikings have done this season. Immediately after sweeping Youngstown State, they barely got by an IUPUI team who still hasn’t won a game in conference play. The field goal percentage went down, and the turnovers went way up, as they totaled 41 turnovers in the two games against the Jaguars (20 and 21 turnovers respectively). Each of those totals meant Cleveland State committed more turnovers in one game than they combined in two games against Youngstown State the week prior. Even with the low shooting percentage, and the high turnover count, the Vikings got by IUPUI, 65-62 and 59-49. Cleveland State now owned a 6-0 record and first place in the conference following the IUPUI series. But the schedule didn’t get any easier.

Northern Kentucky was the next team up, and that was really no issue for the Vikings. Cleveland State won handily in the first game against the Norse, 58-44, committing only nine turnovers in the ballgame This was only the second time all season that they had single digit turnovers in a game. Their shooting percentage kept going downhill since the Youngstown State series, as they shot only 38.2% as a team. The next day was very similar for the Vikings: an even lower 37.9% shooting percentage. But this game it was all about the steals. Cleveland State had 11 steals in the game, their second best count of the season. Those takeaways and stolen possessions helped lead them to a slim 74-71 win over the Norse, bringing them to 8-0 in Horizon League play.

This weekend the Vikings travel to Dayton for a date on Wright State’s campus against the Raiders. As of Thursday the Raiders are ranked 86th according to KenPom, almost 100 spots better than the Vikings, and are the only Horizon League team ranked higher than them. The Raiders are defending conference champions, and were a shoo-in to repeat this season. They come into the matchup on Friday at 6-2 in conference, with one bad loss to Oakland, and are coming off a split with Youngstown State last weekend. Their loss to the Penguins was their first home conference loss since their conference opener in 2018, an OT loss to UIC.

The Vikings haven’t had much success against Wright State in recent years, losing both games to them last year, but taking the Raiders to OT in Cleveland. The Vikings won’t have a chance for home court advantage this year, as both games will be in Dayton. Cleveland State is looking for their first win against the Raiders since February 1st, 2018, a close win at home. There’s no doubt that the Vikings have a shot to win, and will show up ready to play. The Vikings do have an advantage, in a way. With Cleveland State being 8-0 in the conference and Wright State being 6-2 in the conference, the Vikings can afford to lose a conference game more than the Raiders can right. It’ll take a lot of points. Wright State scores 80.1 points per game, a top 50 scoring offense in the country. Cleveland State is going to need to go above and beyond in scoring, as they average only 67.6 points per game, with only a pair of double digit scorers in Torrey Patton and D’Moi Hodge. The field goal percentage woes the Vikings have need to not rear their ugly head, either.

A pair of wins this weekend would propel Cleveland State into a prime position for the top seed in Indianapolis for the Horizon League Tournament in March. A team that wasn’t really expected to do much before the season started is proving everyone wrong. It’s only Dennis Gates’ second season in Cleveland, and he already has the team thinking about an NCAA tournament appearance.