Vikings beef up schedule with eyes on March


Cleveland State announced its full 2023-24 schedule on Tuesday afternoon, but to fully understand what the Vikings will be doing starting in November, it’s important to jump a couple months in the opposite direction.

Most probably don’t need (or want) another recap of CSU’s NCAA Tournament first round game on March 18th, when the 13th-seeded Vikings were routed by Villanova, a fourth seed, in front of an active and noisy sellout crowd at the Wildcats’ home Finneran Pavilion. However, equally noteworthy is what happened immediately before that. In the afternoon half of the VU doubleheader, a different mid-major, the Atlantic Sun’s Florida Gulf Coast University, advanced to the second round with a victory over Washington State that wasn’t really in doubt for a lot of the second half. FGCU was playing on the infamously-dangerous 12-line against the concurrently-vulnerable fifth-seeded Cougars.

The Horizon League remains a one-bid conference (though teams like CSU and Green Bay seem primed to test that standing at some point), but what transpires once that bid is awarded still carries a healthy degree of subjectivity. And in women’s basketball, those seemingly mild decisions on Selection Sunday – like splitting hairs between a 12-seed and a 13-seed – can be the difference between facing one of college basketball’s best players in front of 6,000 hostiles and instead drawing a flawed team living on a power conference reputation in front of a couple of pep bands and a smattering of traveling die-hards on a neutral court. Or the difference between bids to tournaments further down the hierarchy, another harsh fate Chris Kielsmeier’s charges have met in the last couple seasons.

Apparently, they’re fed up with leaving things to chance because Cleveland State’s schedule for the coming season will be the Vikings’ toughest in quite a while, and successfully navigating it could mean ending up on the positive side of close committee decisions more often.

Most of the conversation around the slate will fixate on the December 16th showdown against Iowa in Des Moines and that’s fair; a consensus player of the year on a national runner-up team (not to mention CSU’s staggeringly-high guarantee) deserves that sort of chatter. But Iowa State was a worthy headliner last season, and while Iowa might be a step up from the Cyclones right now, it’s not a huge step.

The true difference begins just a bit further down that metaphorical staircase, with a DePaul game last November that was one of the more significant wins in Vikings history at the time it happened, though by the end of the season the respective performances of the two teams made even calling it an upset debatable. Teams like Akron, Georgia State and Campbell, each expected to contend in their respective mid-major leagues, backslid over the second half of the year, while the remaining opponents like Chicago State, St. Bonaventure and Lindenwood were near the bottom of Division I in the NET rankings. In all, just four of CSU’s non-conference opponents (Iowa State, DePaul, Akron and Georgia State) finished in the top 250. With veteran-caked Youngstown State underperforming and IUPUI rebuilding after a massively-successful run, the Horizon League became a two-horse race for most of the season and did little to buffer the situation.

This time around, things take a drastic turn right from the jump, with a regular season opener on November 7th at Bowling Green, a team that won 30 games last year on the way to the MAC championship game and the WNIT’s Fab Four semifinals. The Vikings will then continue west for a meeting with former Horizon League member Loyola Chicago five days later. While the Ramblers struggled in their first Atlantic-10 season last year after nine in the Missouri Valley Conference, it is worth pointing out that LUC was Cleveland State’s toughest non-conference obstacle two years ago and now only lightly registers in the big picture.

Other 2023-24 schedule highlights include:

  • The second-annual Viking Invitational. Like last year, CSU’s home showcase will be played over Thanksgiving weekend and feature three opponents, including Austin Peay, Chicago State, and UMKC (APSU’s Governors finished 167th in NET last year, ahead of all but five 2022-23 Viking opponents). Unlike last year, the games will be played in Woodling Gym, the program’s 3,000-seat home from its inception in 1973 until the Wolstein Center opened in 1991. The latter facility is booked for Cirque du Soleil shows that week, creating the unique opportunity for “it probably never happens otherwise” throwback games.
  • A tidy bit of symmetry from the end of last season, as the Vikings will compete in FGCU’s holiday multi-team event in the Fort Myers, FL area on December 20th and 21st to play Southern Mississippi and Drexel. Those two opponents won 19 and 21 games last year, respectively, and were both ranked in the NET’s top 180.
  • A similar, yet revamped, conference schedule. As in the past, the Horizon League slate (also released in full on Tuesday) will see each of the 11 conference members play one home game and one road game against each of their ten opponents, beginning with an isolated early-season weekend ahead of diving fully into league play by late December. However, for 2023-24, the HL has eliminated travel partners while still retaining a degree of predictability to the timing of its contests. Half of the Vikings’ 20 conference matches will be played on Saturdays, with six of the remaining ten taking place on a Wednesday. That grouping is part of a new Horizon League effort to leave at least two days between games instead of the one off day common in previous years, one component of what they call a “modernization” of the league schedule.

Given the decisive hardening of Cleveland State’s non-conference gauntlet, it’s likely that the Vikings will be thankful for those extra recovery days by February.

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Cleveland State MBA student and marketing manager by day, #HLWBB by night (and sometimes by day too, don't tell my boss). Follow me on Twitter for regular news and updates from CSU and around the league when there isn't a post covering it, and I'll see you at your favorite Horizon League arena soon.

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