While non-conference successes are always welcomed for any college basketball program regardless of division, for mid majors like Cleveland State, the ultimate goal is to be playing your best brand of basketball during the heart of the conference slate, heading into postseason play. CSU showed promise during their six game winning streak, but ran into two solidified programs in St. Bonaventure and Kent State, resulting in two straight losses headed into final exams.
The Vikings clash with St. Bonaventure was a defensive struggle for both sides, as CSU shot just 30.6% from the field, while holding the Bonnies to 35.4%. Despite keeping it close in the first half, Cleveland State was ultimately unable to generate any sort of offensive flow and rhythm in a 61-42 defeat. Perhaps most alarmingly, not a single CSU stater recorded an assist in the game, which only further exemplifies the struggles they had generating clean and efficient looks. Additionally, the Vikings left eleven points at the free throw line, shooting 11-22 from the stripe on night. This was certainly a night that Daniyal Robinson and company would like to forget, as the lack of ball movement and missed opportunities from the free throw line is a recipe for an uphill battle.
Following the conclusion of their six game winning streak, a difficult challenge awaited CSU in Kent State, a team that has faced powerhouses Houston and Gonzaga earlier this year and played both top teams in games that went down to the wire. Led by Solon, Ohio native Sincere Carry, the Flashes are a team that has the capability to win multiple games in the NCAA tournament this season through their guard play and defensive prowess. As evident in their contests against Houston and Gonzaga, Kent has the ability to defend just about anyone in the country. Despite this, the Vikings gave the Flashes all they could handle in a 67-58 KSU victory. An early 11-1 hole doomed the Vikes, as they were playing from behind for the entirety of the contest.
While Kent enjoyed an early ten point lead, Cleveland State kept it close throughout, led by senior Deante Johnson who had arguably his best game of the young season as he reordered 20 points and nine rebounds on the afternoon. Johnson’s uptick in production will be important as CSU navigates conference play. While he is undoubtedly the backbone of the Cleveland State defense, Johnson possesses great passing abilities for a player of his size. Look for Johnson to be continued to be utilized as a passer in the high post, something that was a staple of the Dennis Gates offense.
While the results of the last two games were not what the Vikings were hoping for, there are still positives to take away, many of them on the defensive end. CSU competed hard against a team in Kent State that many feel have the formula to advance in the NCAA tournament. While the Flashes are still considered a “mid-major” program, they are without question the toughest test Cleveland State will face during the regular season and the Vikings showcased a lot in that particular game that should give fans a lot of hope heading into conference play.
Up next for the Vikings, their final two nonconference ballgames of the season before it is Horizon League play for the reminder of the year. First up, a trip to California to battle Loyola Marymount on Sunday before returning home to take on Division III school Mount St. Joseph at home on Wednesday night. Tip-off for the games are scheduled for 5pm Sunday, and 7pm next Wednesday.