The Cleveland State Vikings are 13-1 and gunning for an at-large bid if they can't wrestle the Horizon League title away from Butler this season. With Loyola and UIC heading out to Ohio for a Cleveland State and Youngstown swing this weekend I wanted to get some opinions about what makes the Vikings tick. Here's a quick five-question primer with Tom Mieskoski (@CSUVikingsHoops) who writes at both Let's Go Vikes and Cleveland State Hoops.
Q&A with Tom Mieskoski about Cleveland State
CCB - Cleveland State is 13-1 and 2-0 in the Horizon League. The Vikings are popping up all over in the NCAA Tournament watches as well. Are you surprised by how well the team has started the season?
TM - I'm definitely surprised that they are 13-1 - especially since D'Aundray Brown, our best defender hasn't played this season because of an injury (hand), but I thought Cleveland State was the second best team in the Horizon League before the season started. The Vikes, who returned everybody from last season, showed signs at the end of last season that they were starting to come around in their last three games against Wright State, Loyola and Milwaukee.
CCB - Can this team get an at-large bid? What needs to happen on Cleveland State's end for the Horizon League to be a two-bid (or even three-bid if Butler and Cleveland State were upset late in the conference tournament) league this season?
TM - CSU's coaches think they have a good shot at possibly getting an at-large bid because of their low RPI, but I think it would be tough. I'm not sure they played a tough enough non-conference schedule.
I think CSU would have to run the table going 16-0 against UIC, Loyola, Valpo, Detroit, Wright State, Youngstown State, Green Bay and Milwaukee, and probably need to split against Butler in the regular season. Then they would have to win on the road in its BracketBusters game.
I think every Horizon League loss against a team other then Butler will probably be considered a bad loss on its resume. Best bet for the Horizon League to get two-teams in the dance is probably if Butler loses in the championship game again.
CCB - Norris Cole is really good, everyone's talking about him. Tell us a little about his game. How do you stop him?
TM - It's hard to believe that Norris Cole, who is the cousin of Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Trent Cole, only had one other scholarship offer coming out of Dayton Dunbar High School - the only other offer was from Walsh University, an NAIA program in Canton.
Cole has taken his game to the next level. His strengths are his driving ability and his mid-range jumper. Coach Gary Waters also says he's much improved on the defensive end. During the summer, Cole put himself in the NBA draft conversation having a good showing at the Deron Williams elite point guard camp. I was told he was recently ranked as the No. 81 prospect by ESPN's Chad Ford. [Ed Note: I checked and he's up to No. 61 now and the 10th best PG prospect.]
How to stop him? I don't know if you can stop him completely, but you try to slow him down by keeping him out of the paint. When he controls the paint and is hitting his jumper he's tough to guard.
CCB - The big men aren't a big focus for Cleveland State's offense. How does Waters use those guys? Who should we expect to see on the block?
TM - Aaron Pogue, our starting center, is the guy they go to when they want to score on the block. Joe Latas, the back-up center who's 6-11, is the guy they go to for defensive purposes - particularly against bigger guys. Latas isn't a shot blocker type of defender, but he usually holds his own. Devon Long, a freshmen, hasn't seen much playing time, but the coaches rave about his scoring ability on the block.
CCB - Last season in the conference tournament Cleveland State torched Loyola from the field in an 80-66 victory, what's better about this season's team?
Their defense is much improved. They take pride in shutting down their opponents. Waters has a saying, "If we shoot 40 percent in a game we will go undefeated. If we shoot 45 percent in a game we will blow teams out. And if we shoot 50 percent against a team, don't even bother showing up for the game." That's how good they think their defense is.
This season, CSU leads the Horizon League in almost every defensive categories, scoring (60.3, 1st), field goal percentage (39.0, 1st), and 3-point percentage (29.3, 2nd). Last year, CSU's defense was in shambles. I think they allowed something like 14 teams to shoot 50 percent or better from the field.
CSU is a much better 3-point shooting team then a year ago. Their weakness is rebounding.
CCB - Finally, do you have a prediction for this weekend?
TM - I think Cleveland State will hold its own at home this week. I'm not sure how they will fare next week at Butler and Valpo, though.
A big thanks again to Tom for doing this. I hope everyone learns a lot about what should be a difficult match up for both Loyola and UIC this upcoming weekend.