The first year Cleveland State coach has navigated a potential disaster season with ease
Injuries and inconsistent play have made many of the Horizon League postseason awards a headache to figure out, but Thursday night’s results put an end to the discussion for one of them.
With Thursday night’s 70-68 win at Milwaukee, the Cleveland State Vikings go into the last game of the regular season 7-10 in Horizon League play with a shot at hosting a first round game in the league tournament. It’s a far cry from where the team was projected to be. Cleveland State lost seven players over the offseason and fired coach Dennis Felton. With most of its projected top talent leaving unexpectedly in the middle of the summer, Dennis Gates walked into what looked like it was going to be a complete rebuild of a team coming off of a 5-13 Horizon League season.
The Vikings were justifiably projected for a last-place finish, so to be even close to .500 in Horizon League play is an incredible feat and a testament to the work of Gates and his players. Aside from one person — who voted the Vikings to win the league in the Horizon League Preseason Poll — it’s hard to imagine anyone looked at Cleveland State’s schedule and saw seven wins total, much less seven wins in Horizon League play.
An argument could be made for the winner of tonight’s game between league-leading Wright State and second-place Northern Kentucky. With a win, the Raiders would finish the season a decisive two games ahead of anyone else in the league. Though with 28 of a possible 35 first place votes in the Preseason Poll, finishing with a 2-game lead on second place feels more like meeting expectations than exceeding them. If anything, the fact that a share of the regular season crown is at stake feels like a letdown given there was a time early in league play where the word “undefeated” was being thrown around.
Meanwhile, a Northern Kentucky win tonight would give the Norse a share of the regular season crown, the top seed in the Horizon League Tournament and an automatic berth into the NIT if the team fails to win the league tournament. Given the huge gulf most predicted between Wright State and the rest of the field, that would actually be a significant achievement and I would understand the argument for Darrin Horn to win the award.
That’s particularly true since he’s had to navigate most of Horizon League play without Dantez Walton, who looked like the League Player of the Year before a series of injuries limited him down the stretch. But again, the Norse were projected for second place in the preseason and received most of the first place votes that didn’t go to Wright State. Northern Kentucky had nothing to do with Wright State dropping several head-scratchers, and arguably did as well as they were supposed to before Walton burst onto the scene.
This doesn’t even factor in that the league’s projected third and fourth place teams were dramatically underwhelming. UIC turned things around late and is 10-7 in Horizon League play and fighting for third place, but a second loss to last-place IUPUI dropped Oakland to 7-10 and into a three-way tie for sixth with the Vikings and Milwaukee. The Golden Grizzlies’ front court was seen as a threat to the league’s top teams, but Oakland went 0-4 against the Raiders and the Norse
Cleveland State is the one team in the league to outperform preseason expectations. The faltering of some of the league’s projected top teams did little to help the Vikings — UIC and Oakland both completed season sweeps of CSU — and the team is still in a position to finish one game out of the top half of the league at the end of the regular season.
Making the feat more impressive, Cleveland State’s rotation that has bought into Gates’ coaching consists largely of newcomers who committed after most of the recruiting cycle had already passed. Six of the team’s top ten players in terms of minutes per game are new to the Vikings this year, with five of them committing to play after Gates took over the program in the last week of July.
The Vikings are accomplishing everything this year while being the team least likely to have an All-League First or Second Team selection. Forward Al Eichelberger — a depth forward on last year’s team — seems to have the best chance. He’s averaging a team-leading 14.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game and could sneak onto the Second Team if voters insist on picking a viable lineup. This is especially true if the Vikings wind up in sixth place, but another year of Wright State wing Bill Wampler and four guards seems more likely right now.
Some might argue that giving Gates Coach of the Year would be celebrating mediocrity. It’s not. It’s a celebration of expectations being dramatically exceeded. If you got earnest answers from around the league, one team is ecstatic with how its season has gone while the rest are at best undecided. Those close to Cleveland State feel great about this season in large part due to the coaching of Dennis Gates.
Dennis Gates is the Horizon League’s Coach of the Year.