Basketball’s hold on all of us owes a lot to its beginnings and endings. Consider the anticipation of opening a new campaign in the arena of a powerhouse program, as Cleveland State will do on November 7th at Iowa State. Or, if you prefer a different emotional palette, think about a super senior like Nadia Dumas in the moments following a postseason loss, trying to process that all of this just ended forever and that the next phase of life is now her only reality.
Then again, the game never really stops. The year-round toil of coaches and mid-career players is well documented, but there’s also the macro story of the game, the way past seasons intertwine with the present and future to influence the course of events. And if that story is half as predictable as a Hallmark movie, 2022-23 just may be the Vikings’ year.
It certainly worked out that way for IUPUI, the team that defeated CSU in the 2022 Horizon League championship game and earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament as the culmination of a three-year journey, one prolonged largely by COVID. The Vikings thundered back from near-embarrassment in that title game (they trailed 25-7 early in the second quarter) to get within a single bucket on a couple occasions during the final minutes. However, a Destiny Perkins four-point play secured her team’s long-awaited confetti shower and a level of heartbreak for her opponents that seemed unfathomable 45 minutes prior to the heroics.
So why not Cleveland State, a team that returns most of its major contributors, this time around? As the Jags can attest, a dream deferred is not a dream denied. Sometimes, it’s just the setup for next season’s highlight video.
Jordana Reisma – The Vikings’ sole true freshman is raw, but also extremely intriguing due to her size, which has occasionally been listed at 6-3 but is more likely around 6-2. Despite that initial read as a straightforward big, the Milwaukee-area native is capable of playing at all three levels while presenting matchup problems all over the floor. However, in a conference loaded with fantastic inside players, Reisma’s shot blocking prowess (she swatted 374 attempts away during her career at Brown Deer High School) is particularly important.
Sara Guerreiro – Though she didn’t play a ton at her last stop, South Florida, Guerreiro does offer instant upside thanks to the experience of being a former major conference player who went to a pair of NCAA Tournaments. The Portugal native does a lot of things well that make her a good fit for the Vikings: she can run the floor, she’s active defensively, and has a pretty deep bag of tricks with the ball in her hands including a solid mid-range jumper and the ability to beat defenders off the dribble.
Shadiya Thomas – Like Guerreiro, Thomas brings a winning pedigree to Cleveland, thanks to her national title last season at Tyler Junior College after the Houston native began her college career at Air Force. Thomas was one of the Apaches’ stars, collecting all-tournament team honors after shooting 43 percent from the floor during the five-wins-in-six-days run to the championship. She was also 17th nationally in assists during the NJCAA regular season, and should be a much-needed facilitator on a team that ranked 329th nationally in assisted shot rate last year.
Carmen Villalobos – In a lot of ways, Villalobos reads as a replacement for outgoing transfer Isabelle Gradwell as an experienced and versatile player with good size who is an outstanding rebounder and defender. An every-game starter at Hartford, the frequent Spanish national teamer finished last year on the best offensive run of her college career, scoring 12 or more points in seven of her final ten games. Back in 2019-20, she was a member of the America East All-Rookie Team (and any player getting any sort of attention at UHart must be doing something really, really right).
It’s at least partly flawed to talk about a “lineup” for the Vikings, given the team’s reliance on energy and athleticism, and its relationship to substitution – last season, megastar Destiny Leo played 35 minutes per game, but the eight other rotation players were all between 15 and 27. Regardless of the first five against ISU, the floor will be shared early and often, with players like Deja Williams and Brittni Moore again playing major roles. Nevertheless, for the sake of adhering to a format, here’s a conservative look at a potential game one lineup featuring returning players (since we’ve already looked at the newcomers).
Destiny Leo – There are few positive words that have yet to be written about Leo, who enters her third collegiate season as a conference player of the year frontrunner and already solidified as one of the better players in program history. Other than the milestones she’s inevitably going to start passing as an upperclassman, one thing to keep an eye on is how much she handles the ball. The Eastlake North grad mostly played on the point early in 2021-22, but as things moved forward, she’d often move off the ball while Williams and others absorbed the toll required of the 1.
Gabriella Smith – Smith might have been Cleveland State’s truest barometer last year, since CSU was at its best when she was playing well and teaming up with Leo to create backcourt havoc (she led the team with 55 steals, and had a darkhorse case for the conference’s all-defensive team) leading to easy points. The one-time Ball State Cardinal often runs hot and cold as a shooter, but it’s a decent bet that she’ll improve on her 38-for-134 (28.4 percent) clip from behind the arc last year – after all, she went 49.1 percent from deep in 2020-21 at Iowa Western Community College.
Barbara Zieniewska – While rarely doing much to grab a ton of attention, Zieniewska’s regular starting place over the last two years is not an accident. She’s an outstanding interior defender who rarely gets pulled out of position and is often responsible for timely disruptions in the paint leading to turnovers (even if she’s not the one directly getting credit for it). She’s also good for about five rebounds per game and the occasional bucket. It’s not always easy to find a player’s plus-minus online, but checking that stat for Zieniewska on the postgame sheet is always a staple of the pre-press conference routine.
Amele Ngwafang – Largely as advertised after arriving through the transfer portal from Radford last year, Ngwafang is a relentlessly physical power forward who led the team in rebounding and blocked shots a year ago and was a cornerstone of the Vikes’ strong defense. Even so, the consensus seems to be that she has an even higher ceiling than what she’s shown, and with Dumas’ departure, she’ll likely have ample opportunity to demonstrate it. Thanks to her style of play, Ngwafang gets to the line more than just about any other player in the country and is couple more made free throws from being a double-digit scorer.
Aminata Ly – While the coaching staff would probably prefer to take it a bit slow with Ly, who missed 2021-22 due to injury, it seems impossible to keep the 6-4 Senegal native off of the floor for very long. She showed tons of potential two years ago, most notably in a come-from-behind win at Youngstown State on February 19, 2021. In that game, she scored 11 points, hauled in ten rebounds and blocked five shots, all while turning in a stellar defensive effort on Penguins star Mary Dunn. With most of the Horizon League’s top contenders rolling two, or even three, high-quality post players, the Vikings are going to need all hands on deck.
Expectations are sky high on E. 21st Street and for good reason, given that Chris Kielsmeier has improved his roster on paper from a group that won 23 games a year ago and has quickly become a perennial visitor to Indianapolis for the Horizon League semifinals. Last season’s antagonist, IUPUI, abruptly found itself staring down a rebuild when Austin Parkinson and several players departed following the Jags’ NCAA run. Wright State, another team that has enjoyed a ton of recent success, is still trying to find its footing under Kari Hoffman. That more or less leaves the Vikings, along with Youngstown State and Green Bay, as the first cut of conference title contenders.
CSU’s non-conference slate is decidedly less sheltered this time around, with trips to Iowa State and DePaul in the campaign’s first three games. The Vikings will also travel to an MTE in Las Vegas in late December while hosting one at the Wolstein Center over Thanksgiving weekend. Given all of that, flirtations with the nation’s longest winning streak (a distinction the team briefly held early last year) are unlikely, but they’ll certainly be battle tested and have their rotations figured out by a December 29th showdown at YSU, an early highlight of the conference schedule.
Those Penguins are likely to be a popular pick to win the league title given their regular season co-championship in 2021-22 and their volume of returning talent, while Green Bay’s history (not to mention their young and talented roster of the present day) has banked a ton of prediction faith as well. But Cleveland State is more than capable of returning to March Madness for the first time since 2010 and completing their own journey of several seasons.
HoriZone Roundtable WBB Prediction
Tied for 2nd Place