Despite suffering two losses during their four-game holiday season slate, the Cleveland State Vikings are exactly where they need to be headed into 2023; right in the thick of the Horizon League regular season championship race. As conference play begins to heat up for the remainder of the regular season, there is no reason to believe the Vikings cannot compete for the regular season crown as their defensive identity has jumpstarted what many thought was a rebuilding situation for Daniyal Robinson in his first season as head coach.
The Vikings currently sit tied for second place in the conference with a 3-1 record in league games. With a looming matchup with fellow 3-1 squad Milwaukee this Thursday, let’s break down what exactly makes the Vikings tick on both ends of the floor and why they can make a run at the league championship as the calendar turns to 2023.
Cleveland State was the premier defensive team in the Horizon League the last few seasons under Dennis Gates and his staff. While the faces on the sideline for the Vikings are new, their defensive identity has remained intact under Robinson. Longtime assistant coach and former assistant under Gary Waters, Jermaine Henderson, made his return to Cleveland State to lead the Vikings on the defensive end of the floor. The Vikings utilize a similar high paced, trapping defense, which can causes opponents headaches in the form of turnovers and tough shots.
While Henderson’s arrival has paid dividends thus far, the Vikings possess significant length which only aids to their defensive prowess. CSU big man Deante Johnson is looking to make his third appearance on the league’s all defensive team, as he acts as the centerpiece to a defense that is both versatile and swarming in the half court. In their Youngstown State loss, it was not until the Penguins sped up the game and converted on a barrage of three pointers that made the Vikings ultimately fall. Despite CSU’s lack of a pure go-to scorer, they have shown the ability to go punch for punch against supreme talent like Antoine Davis and Sincere Carry with their defense and depth.
Cleveland State would also not be in the position they are currently in without the efforts of starting point guard Deshon Parker. The senior possesses one of the country’s best assist to turnover ratios, while also providing the Vikings with the ability to break down a defense off the dribble to both score and set up teammates. Parker was integral to the Vikings’ recent victory on the road against Robert Morris, a team that many feel is on the rise in the conference.
The Vikings have are also starting to see some development from some of their bench pieces, which has elevated the entire roster. Drew Lowder has become comfortable as the first guard off the bench, and an instant offense extraordinaire who can make and convert on extremely difficult shots. Lowder started the season opener for the Vikings but was quickly moved out of the starting lineup after the opening night loss to Notre Dame College in favor of Yahel Hill for defensive purposes. Credit to Lowder for accepting his new role and flourishing in it as his scoring punch has been a welcomed addition to the bench unit. In addition to Lowder, Jayson Woodrich is also rounding into form as he hit multiple big three pointers in the win over Robert Morris.
While Cleveland State does not look to win games in the most conventional means in 2023, their championship DNA has reemerged from the Gates era as the Vikings both understand their strengths and are put in excellent position for success by their coaching staff. Despite the logjam of teams tied at 2-2 in league play directly behind the Vikings, CSU has as good of a chance at the crown as anyone, as they continue to make playing against them very uncomfortable for their opponents through their defensive identity and well rounded scoring attack.
Sound familiar, Vikings fans? That is because Robinson has not run from what made the Gates era successful. While every team needs a degree of luck to win the top prize, Cleveland State is the type of team that can make their own luck if they continue to play with intensity and vigor on the defensive end of the floor.
Up next for the Vikings, a pair of home games against both Milwaukee and Green Bay on Thursday and Saturday. Tip off for Thursday against the Panthers is scheduled for 7pm and the game can be steamed on ESPN+.