The beginning of conference play always brings a newfound sense of optimism as teams are able to analyze what went right and what went wrong during the non conference portion of the schedule. For the Cleveland State Vikings and the rest of the Horizon League, fans were able to enjoy two conference battles before ending their non conference slate towards the middle of December. The Vikings were able to fine tune some aspects of their offensive output in conference battles with Northern Kentucky and Wright State, just in time for arguably CSU’s toughest two-game stretch of the season which includes games at Oklahoma State, and at Duke.
To kickoff the conference schedule, Cleveland State hosted the Northern Kentucky Norse, one of the four teams that advanced to the conference tournament semi finals a season ago. Despite their successes last year, the Norse came into the game with a sub .500 non-conference record. Cleveland State utilized a strong first half effort to secure a 72-58 victory over the sliding Norse. The potent combination of Trevon Faulkner and Marques Warrick were held in check as the two combined for just 21 points on 7-23 shooting against the stifling Cleveland State defense. Northern Kentucky is a team that love to shoot the ball from the perimeter, as they hoisted up 39 total three pointers, almost one per minute. Conversely, Cleveland State only attempted 11 three pointers on the night as the Vikings were able to live in the paint against the Northern Kentucky “amoeba zone” with 48 paint points.
“It’s not necessarily patience, it’s making the right reads…” exclaimed Dennis Gates following the victory over NKU. “…and being able to see where the open spots are. I think our guys watch enough film and they understand…our coaches sit them down, they have conversations about the next play. When you have guys that are able to be in the moment, but also thinking and considering checking down like they are a quarterback into the next play…that’s a very unselfish spirit about us.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Cleveland State’s victory over NKU was the execution of their zone offense. Gates and offensive coordinator Rob Summers implemented a scheme that included big man Deante Johnson stationed at the high post as a facilitator. Johnson had perhaps his most complete game of the season, as he scored 14 points, grabbed six rebounds, and dished out four assists. Cleveland State’s offense was superb with Johnson operating at the high post, something we could see more of if future opponents decide to zone the Vikings as well.
Following the victory over Northern Kentucky, Cleveland State did battle with another team predicted to finish in the upper echelon of the Horizon League, the Wright State Raiders. Wright State came into the tilt with a subpar record for their standards, but the Raiders still have many capable players such as Grant Basile, Tre Calvin, and Tanner Holden. While Basile and Calvin were able to hurt the Vikings with their scoring prowess, the Vikings defense held Holden in check, as he scored just 5 points on 1-7 shooting. This defensive effort helped propel the Vikings to a 85-75 victory over a team that some picked to take the conference title crown.
Cleveland State amassed 22 assists as a team on Saturday against Wright State; further evidence of the Vikings finding their footing on the offensive end. Specifically, Torrey Patton has elevated his game and has become more than a scorer. Patton finished with a game high ten assists on Saturday, as he put his teammates in terrific positions to have success. The sky is certainly the limit for the Vikings as Patton has become a true dual threat player on the offensive end. This not only speaks to his development as a player, but also the trust he has in his teammates to convert on open looks.
In addition to Torrey Patton, Jayson Woodrich deserves special recognition for his performance on Saturday afternoon. Woodrich came off the bench to lead the Vikings in scoring as he poured in 17 points and five three pointers. While Woodrich’s minutes have been somewhat limited to start the season, this could very well be the breakout performance he needed to ensure more playing time in the future. Dennis Gates referred to Woodrich as “The 6th man of the game” as he helped lead the Vikings to the crucial victory. The win puts Cleveland State at 2-0 in league play, atop the conference with Oakland and Youngstown State who have an identical 2-0 record.
Up next for the Vikings, a trio of non conference road games before moving on to Horizon League play for the remainder of the season. A battle with Oklahoma State is on the horizon, in addition to games at Duke and at Kent State.