At 30,000 feet or two months, the view is uncertain


When flying from Cleveland to Fort Myers on a clear night, for the Florida Gulf Coast University-hosted Homewood Suites Classic that concluded Cleveland State’s non-conference schedule, it’s hard to avoid wondering where you’re located at any given moment.

You brought a book with you, but the poor guy stuck in the middle seat of your row is trying to sleep, and you don’t want to rudely click on an overhead light. Your phone, appropriately enough, is in airplane mode, because if your need to scroll social media caused this physics-defying journey to end in tragedy for reasons you don’t really comprehend, well, you’d spend your final moments feeling pretty bad about that.

There’s the laptop screen in front of you, containing what looks like a woman’s attempt to write a melodramatic, but interesting, young adult novel – Sam has a crush on Jake, but Jake’s father doesn’t know he’s gay! – but eventually the woman shifts positions and the screen is obscured. So that leaves a couple albums you downloaded and the window to your left. You paid an extra $30 for that window, you might as well use it.

Most of what you see passing underneath you is darkness, good old-fashioned American nothing, dotted with clusters of light that are surely small, rural towns with names like Blacklick and Rocky Gap, but anonymous to most of the world. Sometimes the network of roads and buildings will spiderweb a bit further and you might think “oh, that must be where the people in Blacklick and Rocky Gap go to get their marriage licenses.”

Occasionally, you’ll be hit with a Seurat much larger than the others and you’ll think that it must be a place that actually makes it on to most maps, so you try an educated guess. It’s early in the flight, there’s a jagged dark streak running down the middle, which must be a river, Charleston maybe? Now it’s closer to the scheduled landing time and this one’s huge, bigger than the other one, but frequently interrupted by smallish bodies of water. It has to be Orlando, right?

You don’t know for sure that it’s Orlando, then or ever, but hey, trying to figure it out helped pass three hours.

That’s a little bit like an out-of-conference schedule. Pieces of data fly in throughout November and December, but there’s really no way to contextualize any of it in a meaningful way that answers the question of whether Cleveland State can repeat as Horizon League champions in March.

The Vikings finished 9-2 over what Chris Kielsmeier likes to call the toughest non-league schedule in program history, though even that statement is based more on assumptions than hard data and relies on an even smaller sample of games close enough to the middle of the Chicago State-Iowa continuum to actually reveal something.

Will Bowling Green be a MAC contender again? Is Drexel a decent team or an awful one? Is rugged Austin Peay capable of surprising people and becoming a darkhorse in the ASUN? Is Southern Miss the team that started the season 7-0, including an upset of Ole Miss, or are they the team that has dropped three straight since then? Is there anything worth taking from the fact that Loyola Chicago was within two points of Iowa early in the third quarter last week? What about CSU’s margin of defeat against the Hawkeyes, smaller than ones endured by usually-very-good mid-majors like BG and FGCU?

It’s hard to avoid a glance to the northwestern corner of the HL to note what Green Bay – generally considered the top threat to anyone’s conference title aspirations since forever – has been doing, including wins over ranked Washington State and Creighton teams (among other impressive results). It’s also hard to avoid the idea that the Phoenix has used mostly the same cast of characters as last season, plus a healthy Maddy Schreiber. Is it enough to say that a year of experience can elevate a team that significantly, from one of several contenders to sitting well above the rest of the conference? Is the entire thing a mirage somehow, a condemned structure built on a flimsy stack of preseason expectations and a small sample of early-season results?

It’s impossible to know the answers to any of those questions, because nothing that anyone has done to this point in the season is a straightforward one-for-one comparison with anyone else. Some people will tell you that they know (including this website, once per week), a few even charge money for that “knowledge,” but they don’t. They can’t. Sure, there’s some safety in the idea that there’s often little variance in the performance of college sports teams year to year, but tell that to Detroit Mercy or Youngstown State right now.

That goes double for a team like Cleveland State, which has all of five healthy players from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad on the roster. Some churn is expected in a program that relies heavily on the transfer portal, since proven experience is available in the portal, but at the price of a rapidly-ticking eligibility clock. However, in the case of the Vikings, the change has been pretty staggering, something Kielsmeier often points out.

“The key to remember is that this team doesn’t have a lot of continuity,” he said after his team won its first game in Fort Myers last week. “There’s a lot of teams in the country that had some in November, and they’ve kind of taken off. Iowa’s a great example of that. Southern Miss is a great example of that, they’ve got almost everybody back.”

On the other hand, and accounting for Destiny Leo’s season-ending injury, CSU doesn’t have a single starter from last year’s team available. Sara Guerriero, the leading returner in terms of playing time, averaged 16.9 minutes per game last year, seventh on the team. Jordana Reisma is now the leading returning scorer, with 5.5 points per game last year, sixth on that roster. Someone like Carmen Villalobos is clearly a vital player right now, but it’s easy to forget that she was barely seen for long stretches last season, including a combined 11:40 of playing time in the Horizon League semifinals and championship game.

Of course, a lot of that is offset by the production of players like Colbi Maples and Mickayla Perdue, unknown to Clevelanders a few months ago, but playing at an all-conference level right now. Reisma has taken another step in her development and has become a dominant post player, Villalobos and Guerreiro are excelling with more on their shoulders, Shadiya Thomas and Faith Burch now chew up important minutes after primarily playing in blowouts last year, while Grace Ellis and Brooklynn Fort-Davis have offered quality depth.

“I’m incredibly proud of everybody, this team has gone through a lot of adversity,” Kielsmeier said. “This team hasn’t had a lot of games together. Those two things equate to some struggles, and this team says ‘not to us, we’re going to continue the culture and tradition that the program has set in the past, and we’re going to get better.’ That’s what they’ve done.”

“We’re still not anywhere close to playing our best basketball, and we’re winning games, so that says a lot about this team.”

It’s all looked pretty good most of the time, and on any reasonable assessment, CSU has met or exceeded expectations, with or without Leo. Are they championship good? It would be convenient to close on a line like “we’re about to find out,” given that the Vikings visit Green Bay at the end of the week, but that would oversimplify the nature of what Kielsmeier rightly sees as a work in progress, up against a squad with an extremely familiar rotation. Sure, a loss on Saturday would sting, and it probably would make the February 3rd rematch in the Wolstein Center a must-win for a group with regular season title aspirations, but it would be foolish to read much into it beyond that.

“We’re still learning this team. I think they’re still learning themselves,” he admitted. “But I know one thing, their potential and their ceiling of what they can reach this year is super high. We just gotta keep coaching them hard, and they gotta keep trying to get better and just continue to grow. How much growth can happen over the next week or two weeks? Once we find the consistency that we know we’re capable of for longer stretches of time, I think we’ll really take off and play some outstanding basketball.”

“We know we’ve got a long ways to go, we’ve got an 18-game marathon Horizon League schedule. It’s a gauntlet, every night. We’ve gotta get better. We can play so much better, we can play so much more consistent, we’re just not quite there yet.”

That’s maybe not the most satisfying answer, it certainly offers no promises on the question of whether the Vikings will ultimately reach their potential and their goals, but it’s the correct one. After all, the only cities you can identify with 100 percent accuracy are at the beginning and the end of your trip.

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