NCAA Tournament Primer: Cleveland State Vikings

Tre Gomillion goes up for a game clinching dunk with one minute left in regulation. (Courtesy of CSU Athletics)

Cleveland State capped off a stunning Horizon League season by adding a League Tournament Title to its shared Regular Season Title. After our staff picked the Vikings for fourth place in the league and Horizon League voters picked CSU for seventh, the team jumped out to a hot start that had it two games ahead of overwhelming favorite Wright State at the mid-point of the season.

Depth has been the key for the Vikings, with 10 players playing in at least 20 games and an eleventh playing in 18 with several missed due to injury. Cleveland State’s bench went nine players deep into its bench on several occasions this season. That depth and the fresh legs that came from it might’ve been an underrated element of the team’s success this season, with the Horizon League opting to play one opponent on back-to-back nights in the same building every weekend of league play.

Team: Cleveland State Vikings
League: Horizon League
Record: 19-7 (16-4 in Horizon League Play)

Projected Seed? I’ll say 14. The Vikings are currently projected to be one of the top 15-seeds on Bracket Matrix, but with three of the four teams immediately above them and seven teams above CSU from one-bid leagues still just projected, there is a lot of potential for conference tournament upsets to bump the Vikings up another seedline.

Who could they play? With the entire NCAA Tournament taking place in one place and no geographic advantages for top teams, the tournament will be seeded almost entirely based on the S-curve. Funny enough, if the Bracket Matrix projection wins up being the actual S-curve, Cleveland State would wind up being one of the reasons that last sentence had the word “almost” in it. As the current second-ranked 15-seed the Vikings would be projected to play the third best 2-seed, Ohio State. But the Vikings and Buckeyes played in December, and each team could easily be shifted up or down one spot on the current without being matched up against another non-conference opponent. One area of seeding this year that will be like previous tournaments is avoiding non-conference matchups when possible, and avoiding that one is very possible.

With all of that said, there’s still a lot of Conference Tournament basketball to be played. Upsets in one-bid leagues could easily move CSU up the S-curve, while later rounds of the Power Conference Tournaments could dramatically change Ohio State’s standing in either direction.

Some of the other teams that are roughly in the range Cleveland State could wind up facing include Houston, Arkansas, West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas and Villanova. Depending on how conference tournaments play out, there’s even a chance the Vikings will take on Dennis Gates’ mentor Leonard Hamilton and Florida State.

How will they win? When you’re talking about a 14-seed or potentially 15-seed this is obviously a tough question. It’s wildly unlikely to win its NCAA Tournament game, and the Vikings don’t seem to check the usual boxes of NCAA Tournament Cinderellas. The team is likely to deal with size issues in the frontcourt, and despite that shot just 31.9 percent from 3-point range. While the Vikings have had a star emerge throughout the season, he doesn’t appear to have the individual star power of a C.J. McCollum-type player.

One key to pulling off the massive upset will be the play of Torrey Patton. The First Team All-League wing and Horizon League Tournament MVP evolved from a quietly consistent performer into a go-to scorer as the season went on, putting up his first 20-point performance in February, then reaching 30 points twice in the following month.

While Cleveland State went 0-3 in non-league play and wound up on the receiving end of a historically awful scoring run, the Vikings did immediately turn around and put forth a performance that they can draw from next week. Cleveland State fell 67-61 in the game against projected 2-seed Ohio State. The Vikings kept it close despite getting just eight points on 4-for-11 shooting out of Torrey Patton. If Patton can put up an all-around quality performance against a non-Horizon League opponent and the rest of the team can bring the same play that it did on that day back in December, a win over a team that’s theoretically weaker than OSU is definitely possible.

Why will they lose? Realistically, there are very few matchups on the table where Cleveland State’s size won’t put it at a significant disadvantage. The Vikings staring lineup features rim protector Deante “Spider” Johnson, wing Patton and three guards. 2020 All-League big man Algevon Eichelberger was injured early in the year and hasn’t been able to play nearly as well as he did a season ago. The rest of Cleveland State’s regular rotation is made up of perimeter players. The way most Cinderellas make up for that significant size disadvantage is by shooting the lights out. While there are individual players who are capable of doing so, the team’s overall shooting is sub-par.

Another area that could cause problems for CSU is the team’s tendency to go through long scoring droughts. While the Vikings frequently overcame double-figure scoring runs from opponents in Horizon League play en route to 19 wins against league foes in 23 tries, it’s not realistic to expect the same thing to happen against a Top 15 team. Throughout the year, Dennis Gates looked for his team to play 40 great minutes, and as of the night of the Horizon League Championship Game he wasn’t sure he’d seen it. Cleveland State will need 40 great minutes to get a win next week.

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