Most coaches would be thrilled if they had four-fifths of their starting lineup returning after a successful season in which their team tied for the conference title, qualified for the NIT, and had a hard-nosed senior defender returning after missing the past season with a finger injury.
However, when the one-fifth that is not returning is Norris Cole, the point guard who rewrote Cleveland State’s record books and played a pivotal role in helping the Vikings advance to the postseason two times in four years on his way to being drafted in the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft, many coaches would be tempted to load their nonconference schedule with easy teams and drastically lower their expectations for the season.
Not Gary Waters. While some coaches may have viewed scheduling the nationally ranked Vanderbilt Commodores as a risky move as a regular-season opener and even point to Cleveland State’s major stumbles against top-ranked nonconference opponents during the 2009-10 season as evidence for their view, Waters penciled in a match up against a team whom many expect to be a major contender in the SEC.
Today, Waters looks like a genius as the Vikings upset the Commodores on their home floor on Sunday afternoon, 71-58.
Admittedly, the Commodores did not head into Sunday’s game at full strength. The Commodores were without star center Festus Ezeli, who was suspended for the first six games of the season after taking improper benefits from a booster and later injured his MCL in his knee. Additionally, coach Kevin Stallings’ squad also played a late game on Friday night against Oregon and appeared to be slow, tired and a step behind the hard-charging Vikings.
Nevertheless, the Vikings’ overwhelming dominance from start to finish shows that Cleveland State is indeed a team to be reckoned with this season and that Vanderbilt must realize that they need to work hard to fulfill the praises and potential heaped upon them in the media. The Vikings never trailed after taking a 3-0 lead on a 3-pointer by senior guard Trevon Harmon in the first minute of the game and led by as many as 15 points on the way to a win that captured the nation’s attention.
One of the brightest spots for the Vikings was the return of D’Aundray Brown, who returned after missing last season with a finger injury. Brown contributed 18 points, eight rebounds, and seven steals in his first regular season game since March 2010. The Vikings will lean heavily on Brown’s defense and experience this season.
Another bright spot for the Vikings was their bench play. Last season, the Vikings received inconsistent play from their bench all season long, and the starters were forced to play major minutes every game. While this did not hinder the Vikings at first as they jumped out to a 21-3 start to the season, the heavy minutes logged by the starting unit eventually took their toll toward the end of the season as the Vikings slogged through much of their conference schedule and lost in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals. On Sunday, the Vikings received 22 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks, and three assists from their bench. Freshman forward Anton Grady, a local product from Cleveland Central Catholic High School, made an impact in his regular-season debut with seven points, four rebounds, and four blocks in 22 minutes of action. Furthermore, no Vikings starter played more than 33 minutes.
Of course, it is far too early in the season for the Vikings to start printing NCAA Tournament commemorative hats and for fans to begin making travel plans to watch the Vikings in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Injuries, surprise NCAA violations, and the grind of the regular-season schedule can take down even the most talented team, and the Vikings have a long road ahead of them. Nevertheless, Sunday’s win gives Vikings fans much to celebrate and shows that the team will still be very competitive this season despite the loss of Norris Cole.
The Vikings will play their regular season home opener against the Rio Grande Redmen at 7:00 P.M. at the Wolstein Center.