Category Archives: Basketball

For Cleveland State, Next Year Has Arrived (But Not For Everybody)

The Cleveland State men’s basketball season, the first for head coach Dennis Felton, has finally come to its end. At this stage, most CSU fans have just resided themselves watching the future, which clearly rests on the shoulders of sophomores Kash Thomas and Evan Clayborne and freshmen Tyree Appleby and Stefan Kenic, rather than hope the present would get any better.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the off-season: The Vikings got hot at Motor City Madness. All the way to the final game.

CSU, for its part, could have just rested on the first-round win over Youngstown State, which, of course, was a grind until the very end. The long odds and shot turnaround time from the victory against the Penguins would make any Vikings fan skeptical of beating Northern Kentucky, which had bested CSU by double digits twice in the regular season, let alone get to the final game.

But yet, there the Vikings were, fighting through nail-biter after nail-biter. And for the third year in a row, the top seed at the Horizon League Tournament failed to win the whole thing. And for the second year, the No. 1 seed inexplicably lost to the winner of the 8-9 first round game.

This year’s victim was Northern Kentucky, who, aside from getting swept by Wright State, had been pretty well-set at the top of the conference standings. And as for Cleveland State, the Norse had no issues dispatching of the Vikings twice in the regular season, with both contests won by at least 15 points.

CSU dismissed those early-season setbacks and ran headlong into the defending champions with no fear. The end result was a nine-point Cleveland State win, and Appleby was the star. The All-Freshmen team selection was unconscious in the second half, finishing with a game-high 24 points and putting all conference foes on notice that he’d be a force to be reckoned with for the next three years.

The ugly defensive slugfest against Oakland that was finally settled with 32.4 second left. That’s when Appleby stared down the Horizon League’s top shot-blocking squad and dropped a baseline layup.

And when that was through, senior Kenny Carpenter, whose 14 second-half points proved to be key, locked down Kendrick Nunn, the conference player of the year, and kept his final shot from getting in the basket, leaving Cleveland State with an astounding 44-43 win.

Even though Wright State proved to be too much for the Vikings in the finals, handing CSU a 74-57 defeat en route to a ticket to the NCAA Tournament, the foundation, it appears, has been laid.

For the Cleveland State fans that took the wait-and-see approach with Felton in his inaugural campaign, the Motor City Madness run was an early payoff to their patience. And CSU, who did everything within its power to get fans to Little Caesars Arena, can now think about how to expound upon this late-season success.

There will be far greater expectations for both the on-court performance and fan enthusiasm. Even with six departing seniors, Felton will still return two full-time starters (Appleby and Kenic), one former starter turned sixth man (Thomas), Clayborne, Dontel Highsmith and Shawn Christian.

Add into the mix DePaul transfer Algevon Eichelberger, fall signees Rashad Williams and Deante “Spider” Johnson, plus Dibaji Walker, Seth Milner, Uros Plavsic and JUCO transfer Jalaam Hill, who are all expected to join CSU during the spring signing period. With the general consensus being that this is the most talented recruiting class in a long time, Felton will have to get them all adjusted to the Division I game quickly.

One sign he may get a chance to get the team on the same page quicker than, say, midway through the non-conference schedule, is the pending trip to Europe. Men’s basketball has already started the fundraising effort to get the $20,000 in funds to make that trip a reality. And with $4,635 already banked from CSU’s annual Giving Day event in February, it’s only a matter of time before the team gets the rest of the funds and can start packing their bags.

From a fan standpoint, Athletics must take a good, hard look at the effort put in during the conference tourney and parlay that into a plan to boost attendance at the Wolstein Center. The smart move would be to keep the summer social media push (which featured weekly videos and the blitz on Twitter involving the mascot, Magnus) going year-round.

The logical first stop? Spring signing day. After all, all the new recruits are on Twitter, along with Thomas, Appleby, Highsmith and Clayborne. The chatter between all of them in the off-season will be something to watch.

So, as the title implies, next year has arrived, but not for everybody. For the seniors, next year is here in the form of new adventures, both on the court and off, after graduation. For the underclassmen and recruits, next year comes in the form of getting to know each other and the prospect of making 20-loss seasons a thing of the past.

For the coaches, next year comes in the form of the spring signing period, along with taking a good, hard look at the recruiting class of 2019 and beyond. For the fans, next year comes in the form of, well, beating each other up on social media and the CSU Viking Hoops message board run by writer Tom Mieskoski.

For me and this column, however, there is no next year.

In January, I made the decision to stop the CSU column I have written since May 2014, starting at the now-defunct More Than a Fan: Cleveland and continuing here at Campus Pressbox in March 2016. It’s been a good run, but as they say, all good things must come to an end.

Sure, you’ll still see me break out the occasional Twitter rant, but as far as this column is concerned, that’s a wrap. There’s still plenty of news and views about Cleveland State out there, starting with Mieskoski’s Cleveland State Hoops site and including upstarts like 216 Sports and The Reserve News. You’d do well to follow all of them, as I have.

For someone who never thought he’d be writing anywhere ever again, it has been an honor and a privilege to cover my alma mater. And I thank all of you, both at Cleveland State and beyond, who made this possible. Because at the end of the day, win or lose, I will always be a fan.

An occasionally grouchy, angry fan, but a fan, nonetheless.

Email Bob at bob.mcdonald@campuspressbox.com or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald

Image via CSUVikings.com

The FBI Sets its Sights on NCAA Basketball

Stop the presses! An FBI investigation suggests that “influencers” surrounding high school basketball hot-shots are getting paid by shoe companies and agents to steer kids to preferred One-and-Done programs!?! Who would have thought it possible? Maybe the better question…is anyone really surprised?

I have no doubt that there are blue-blood basketball programs and blue-blood wannabes that have a river of illicit money flowing to families, coaches, and other influencers that surround the top 30 or so recruits in the country. College coaching staffs may know exactly what is going on and are involved in the money flow. They may know what is going on and simply turn a blind eye. Some programs are not part of the system. They are likely the ones not getting many top 30 recruits.

This is not a question about whether college athletes in revenue sports should get paid (they should). This problem is about the leeches in current system that abuse their relationship and influence with high school kids for profit.

The reality is that every year there is a very small group of high school players who are ready to play in the NBA. The unfortunate reality is that there are another 30 or so kids every year who think they are ready to play in the NBA but are not. Unfortunately, this larger group of “not ready, but think they are” have “experts” and “advisors” whispering in their ears that they are the next Joel Emblid, Jahlil Okafor, or Karl-Anthony Towns, when they aren’t.

Like Ben Simmons, Jabari Parker, Jamal Murray, Stanley Johnson before him, it didn’t take a genius or any special eye for talent to watch Marvin Begley III play basketball and conclude that he was a stratospheric talent. Were there “handers” who profited from O-A-D decisions of these phenoms? I don’t know, and for these players, it doesn’t really matter. It is not these kids who suffer from the actions of the leeches. The only problem for hyper-talented of players coming out of high school is the inconvenience of having to delay earning millions by 12 months with the charade of one year in college.

The bigger problem rests, not with the kids who become one-and-dones and sign big NBA contracts, but with the hundreds of kids over the past 10 years who thought they were O-A-D’s  because their “advisors” told them they were and they weren’t. These players made decisions based on advice and information that was tainted. The players, not the advisors suffer the consequences of bad advice. Crestfallen players languish on the bench at one-and-done factories, realizing they were not as good as they were told. They are recruited-over by the next year’s hot-shots and the dream of the NBA becomes a bridge too far.

Who pays the price for this tragedy? Not the advisers. Not the agents. Not the shoe companies. The kid who would have been far better off going to a program where he would have been the star, where he would have actually played lots of minutes in front of large TV audiences, where he had a chance to get an education, and where, given strong coaching he had a chance to grow into a professional basketball player. He is the one who draws the short straw and suffers the consequences, while the leeches are off in search of their next protege.

I would suggest that “advisors” who get paid under the table to steer kids to preferred programs are not advisors but rather predators, just like any other predator who satisfies their own needs and desires taking advantage of kids. They don’t care about these kids, they care about getting a payday. These players are kids, from a stand point of maturity and in the eyes of the law. Most of their families are not well-schooled in the world of big-time recruiting. These predators who work their way into in the circle of trust of both the players and their families are are leeches, blood suckers. They are the worst kind of threat to the best interests of these kids and their families.

It is my bet that if the FBI goes public with the results of their investigation, there will some big names in college basketball running for cover. We also will learn the names of shadowy figures who, for the right payday, steered high school recruits to the basketball factories that wanted them.

Speculation at this point? Sure. Is there really any doubt that there is illicit money changing hands in an industry that generates billions of dollars annually and the athletes play for free? Pull my finger and it plays Mozart.

Virginia’s Win over Duke is a Big Win for College Basketball

The scoreboard in Durham read:

Virginia 65

Duke      63

But the bigger story was this:

Real College Basketball – 1

NBA Minor League – 0

The University of Virginia scored a big win for college basketball on Saturday. Virginia, notched an improbable, but not shocking win against the NBA’s minor league franchise-in-residence at Durham, otherwise known as the Duke Blue Devils.

Let’s be clear about one irrefutable truth – Duke has the most talent of any team in college basketball. I am not sure there is a close second. Kentucky maybe, but no other team has the wealth of talent that a Coach K has assembled at Duke. Duke has multiple NBA lottery draft picks on their roster. So how did UVa, who has zero NBA lottery draft picks on their roster, beat Duke at Cameron Indoor?

I am not sure it’s that hard to understand. Virginia is a tightly knit team of college basketball players who are completely vested and committed to the University of Virginia and the success of UVa basketball. Duke is a confederation of future NBA basketball players, none of whom give two rips about Duke, Durham, or college basketball unless it impacts their route to the NBA. In real world terms, the Virginia players are home owners with a vested interest in the success of their program. Duke’s players are renters, looking to move out as soon as they can. Which one of those is better for the long term prospects of the neighborhood? Which is better for college basketball?

I was awed by some of the jaw-dropping plays Duke made on Saturday. They are an impressive collection of massively talented basketball players. To their credit, the Duke one-and-dones seem like good kids in addition to being ridiculously talented athletes. They are not dirty cheap-shot artists, like Grayson Allen. They are not foul-mouthed cry babies…like Greyson Allen. The fab Freshmen at Duke have not emulated Grayson Allen, primarily because they don’t care about Grayson Allen or anything else about Duke basketball…and that’s why Virginia won on Saturday.

I think the one-and-done kids play hard. I think they would much rather win than lose. I am sure they work hard in practice. However, there is no doubt that the success of Duke basketball is not at the top of their list of priorities. Duke is a holding bin, a way station on the way to the NBA for all of Duke’s contributing players. While I am sure they like Duke and respect Coach K, if VCU could convince these kids that VCU was a better conduit to the NBA than Duke, there is no question these kids would punt the Devils and embrace the Rams. This is why Duke lost today. This is also why Duke lost to Boston College and NC State. When your NBA highlight reel is your highest priority, winning is nice, but it’s not the ultimate goal.

By contrast, Virginia’s players are fully vested in their university, their coach, and their program. Several of Virginia’s players will certainly have professional basketball careers and one or two might have long careers in the NBA. However none of Virginia’s starting 5 will be NBA lottery picks, but they will all be Virginia basketball legends and adored by Virginia fans for the rest of their lives.

There is no question that Virginia’s players love UVa. They love their coach. They love Charlottesville. By the time they graduate they will have spent 4 or more of their most formative years immersed in the culture of UVa, Charlottesville, and the Virginia basketball program. They are part of the fabric of UVa. They bleed for UVa. Duke’s current crop of fab-freshmen will spend the obligatory 8 months in Durham before moving on to the NBA. While I am sure they would like to win the ACC championship and the NCAA tournament, the Virginia players would given their first born to bring championships home to Charlottesville. That’s why the Bad News Bears won today. It is why Virginia will remain relevant on the national stage as long as Tony Bennett is leading the program.

I have no illusions that Virginia is the favorite to win the NCAA tournament this year.  I will be thrilled if they can win the ACC regular season. It is a long road ahead and Virginia has to clear many high hurdles to win the ACC much less win the NCAA championship. By the time March rolls around, less talented legs are tired and the Duke thoroughbreds might be in a better physical condition to make a tournament run. However, if the winner of the Big Dance comes down to heart and determination, a real college team like Virginia will be tough to beat and fab-freshmen can move on to the NBA, making room for next year’s mercenaries.

The Wild and Wacky World of Horizon League Hoops

When the Horizon League schedule began at the end of 2017, all signs pointed to essentially everything staying pretty much the same as they had last season. Oakland and Northern Kentucky would be duking it out for the top spot. Wright State would continue to lurk as a contender. And Milwaukee would expound on its surprise Motor City Madness run from last year and compete in the top half of the league.

Also, Green Bay would hover somewhere near the middle of the standings, while most of the bottom of the conference from last year, as well as new addition IUPUI, would remain looking up at the better schools.

This isn’t exactly how things have gone in the early going. In fact, it seems as if the Golden Grizzlies have switched places with one of the bottom-rung teams. And few would have guessed that team would be Youngstown State.

The Penguins, who languished throughout the entire non-conference slate without a win against a Division I school, were essentially written off before the Horizon League began play. That was probably a major oversight over everyone’s part, as YSU rattled off three straight wins to begin league play. The 3-0 start is the first time Youngstown State has ever been at that mark since joining the conference.

It’s been more than 16 years since YSU joined the Horizon League. That’s a pretty big deal.

While the Penguins have connected with some surprise punches, the Raiders were sort of the wild-card in the league mix. The goal in Year Two of the Scott Nagy Era at Wright State was to get the team closer to the top of the heap.

And so far, it looks as if the Raiders may be a legitimate force to be reckoned with in the conference, joining Youngstown State and NKU in the ranks of the undefeated among Horizon League foes.

For the Norse, the defending Motor City Madness champs, the road to stay on top has been a rather difficult one early. Northern Kentucky already had a tough go of it on the road trip to Michigan, barely squeezing by Oakland, 87-83, and winless Detroit Mercy, 56-54.

And the Grizzlies? They seem to be stuck in neutral, with only one win in the early conference going. The close loss to the Norse was sandwiched in between a surprise loss the Green Bay and the 86-81 overtime setback at the hands of Wright State.

The Wisconsin trip to Green Bay and Milwaukee does still look to be a grueling trek for any Horizon League school, but neither the Phoenix nor the Panthers are setting the world on fire. Green Bay, since besting Detroit and Oakland, have dropped three straight, including getting swept on its Ohio trip by both YSU and Cleveland State. Milwaukee, at the same time, sits at 2-2.

And finally, there’s UIC, which was favored as an early contender. A close 65-61 loss against Wright State was negated by an 86-51 drubbing by Northern Kentucky.

It’s pretty clear that through the early games, in spite of three undefeated teams at the top, no on school has truly dominated, and that could mean some wild shifts in the standings in the coming months. Given how poorly the Horizon League performed as a whole during the non-league slate, it’s likely going to be a long up-and-down slap fight leading up to Motor City Madness.

Email Bob at bob.mcdonald@campuspressbox.com or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Image via NKUNorse.com

Sorry Duke, Virginia is the New Taste in College Basketball

Reading some of national reporting on college basketball, particularly Virginia basketball, it might be easy to conclude that there was a crisis in college basketball. It would be easy to conclude that Virginia basketball was an infection slowly killing college basketball. It would be easy to conclude that Virginia was leading NCAA basketball down the path to attention deficit disorder-driven doom.

Such a conclusion couldn’t be more wrong.

I watched Duke play Florida State the other day. It is hard not to be impressed by the embarrassment of riches Coach K has brought to Durham. Duke starts 4 freshmen. At least 2 of those 4 will be one-and-dones. The other 2 could spend a second season in Durham pretending to be college students, but it is not likely. Smart money says all four call it quits on going to class in January and conclude their stints at the NBA’s minor league franchise-in-residence at Durham after March Madness concludes.

As I watched the track meet with FSU, I couldn’t help but wonder what Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Jay Williams thought. I can’t imagine what Bobby Hurley, Christan Laettner and Grant Hill think. I am sure they are happy with the continued success of the program. Duke is an unquestioned big dpg in NCAA basketball. However, watching Duke play basketball today has very little in common with Duke basketball that put the Blue Devils on the map. It looks nothing like the game that Battier, Booozer, Laettner, and Hurley played. Funny, I don’t remember many reporters griping about too much defense when defense was Duke’s calling card.

The Duke of old was known for discipline. Hard-nosed, aggressive man-to-man defense was Duke’s differentiation. While Duke had very talented players back in the day, they lived and died with their defense and the offense it so frequently spawned. Prior to the current incarnation of Duke basketball, players went to class and graduated with college degrees.

Not any more. The Duke of today is a staging area for NBA players. A way station, a holding bin. Duke no longer has a brand or calling card other than a roster stacked with kids who have no interest in a Duke education. Instead, they have every intention of leaving Durham before the first commencement ceremonies of their college “careers.” Remember when Coach K wouldn’t raise a championship banner in Cameron Indoor if a player on his team had not finished his degree? Yeah, those days are over.

Watching Duke play these days is like any other play ground game. it is festival of 1-on-1 moves and dunks. Duke’s defense is more happenstance than strategy & execution. When ridiculously talented players log enough minutes, eventually they will be in a position to make a remarkable play. Duke’s defensive success is more like looking down and finding a 4-leaf clover than the result of a well deployed plan.

On the other hand, I just got back from the Virginia/North Carolina game in Charlottesville. UNC came into today’s game averaging 85 points per game. They scored just over half of their average today as Virginia dominated the Tar Heels for the second year in a row in John Paul Jones Arena.

In past two games combined against Virginia, the Heels have scored 92 points for a per-game average of 46. That doesn’t happen by accident. It also is not a result of Virginia’s roster being stacked with 5-star, future NBA lottery picks. Rather it is the result of a program that is committed to winning differently and generally has its way setting tempo and controlling the pace of play.

Unlike Duke, Virginia wins based on stellar execution at both ends of the floor. They win by playing the best defense in the country. They win by frustrating offensive juggernauts used to having their way running up and down the court doing tomahawk and windmill dunks. UNC didn’t have any windmill jams on Saturday. Instead they got their butts kicked at both ends of the court by a team that, on paper, had no business staying within 20 points of the Tar Heels. What’s not to love about that?

David slaying Goliath has always been a popular theme in college athletics. Until Virginia started averaging close to 30 wins a season, no one ever evaluated David’s style points for how he slew Goliath. That Virginia fans went as crazy over 3 uNC shot clock violations as they did for De’Andre Hunter’s thunder jam over Joel Barry shows me that Virginia fans appreciate the full breadth of the college game.

Virginia can’t win playing UNC or Duke basketball, so they don’t. Instead, they play aggressive defense. They make the extra pass on offense. They play Virginia basketball. True basketball fans should at least appreciate if not relish the fact the Coach Tony Bennett has found a way to run with and beat the big dogs by intentionally not playing their game. Strategy and execution should be as appreciated as a part of college basketball as a break-away slam.

I suspect those who grimace at the way Virginia has creeped into the top tier of basketball programs are the same folks who like to see a winning score at the US Open of -20. On the surface a birdie-barrage looks more entertaining than hacking out of knee-deep cabbage.

However, what the run-and-gunners  and birdie fanatics miss is an appreciation for the strategy options and execution that turn an expected outcome on its head. Maybe what irks Virginia’s detractors the most is that Virginia wins enough big games now, that after a beatdown of UNC, no one even considered storming the court…since Virginia has now done this 5 times in a row.

I am not asking everyone to be a Virginia fan. All I am asking is for an accommodation, for a grudging acceptance that there is more than one way to succeed mightily in college basketball. Virginia might be an acquired taste, I understand that, but so is good bourbon, good scotch, and stout beer. Beating the tar out of the Heels two years in a row is a great reason to celebrate the acquired tastes in life, wherever we find them.

Is Virginia Basketball the Bitcoin on the NCAA Basketball?

Has anyone but the most ardent Virginia basketball fan heard of Kihie Clark and Kody Strattmann? For those with better things to do, that is your UVa 2018 basketball recruiting class. Any guess where this recruiting class is ranked in the ACC? Don’t bother looking it up. It’s last. There is a chance Virginia could add a name or two to the ’18 class, but don’t bet a week’s pay on it. Worried? Don’t be.

If anyone is concerned about the future of Virginia basketball, please watch Devon Hall play this year. Hall is not only a a top statistical performer for the team, he is a floor leader, a general who knows what Coach Bennett wants at all times. He is like having an assistant coach running the offense and setting the defense in real time. Not many top programs have this type of player anymore. Virginia makes a living off of guys like this and will continue to do so in the future.

Let’s face the reality of Virginia basketball – Tony Bennett runs a different program compared to most of the other top tier teams in the country. Virginia’s defense grabs most of the headlines from the national media who generally are too simple-minded to appreciate the skill and teamwork of great defense. They want all icing & no cake, so when Virginia basketball fails to look like the mind-numbing NBA, they complain that they are bored. Too bad for them. Like good scotch, Virginia basketball is a taste worth acquiring.

However, where Tony Bennett really excels, where he is radically different in his program strategy, and where he makes his bones winning lots of basketball games is in his roster management and player development.

It is hard to argue with CTB’s results bringing Virginia back to the conversation of the elite teams in the country. It is just an unusual path. Like the value of bitcoin, fan confidence in the future success of the Virginia program is based on trust. And like bitcoin, there are likely to be spikes and crashes in the public perception of his roster management and his recruiting. The results to date are stellar however, so fans should trust his system, trust his eye for talent, and trust his ability to develop talent over a college career. Ahhh…. the multi-year college career. We don’t hear much about that anymore, with the exception of UVa and maybe Wisconsin & Villanova, but it is a crucial part of Tony Bennett’s strategy and Virginia’s success.

It is important to get two things out in the open that will not change for Virginia basketball:

  1. Virginia will never land top 15 recruits who are likely “one & done” players. Nor will Virginia land top 40 recruits who think they are one & done, but really aren’t. In Tony Bennett’s system, a top 40 recruit, pretending to be a college student for 6 months, who is not committed to intensely effective defense will sit on the bench. Think that is an attractive option to prima donna kids who think they are the next LeBron James?
  1. Malcolm Brogdon winning the NBA rookie of the year will do nothing to help Virginia’s recruiting with top 40 kids. Brogdon is the poster-child for Virginia athletics. Virginia fans love Malcolm Brogdon, but that carries no weight with high school kids looking for a basketball home. A true student-athlete, had he not made it in the NBA, Brogdon’s fall back was likely medical school. He went to college for 5 years and finished with 2 degrees. How appealing is that to hot-shot high school kids who have no real interest in 5 months of college education, much less 5 years and 2 degrees? Not very.

This is not to say that the Virginia program is void of ACC talent. Quite the contrary. It is just different than any other program in the ACC and most programs in the nation. CTB and his staff find the right “fits” for the program and develop that talent over time. London Perentes anyone? Joe Harris? Both of these recruits garnered collective yawns from the recruiting services and did little to boost the “ranking” of Virginia’s recruiting classes – yet both were All-ACC performers and are playing professionally in the NBA (Perentes making his debut with Cleveland last week)

The tough reality for Virginia fans is that recruiting for Tony Bennet is going to run in cycles.

Scan Virginia’s roster and you will find 5 active redshirt players (Devon Hall, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt, Jay Huff, & De’Andre Hunter), with a 6th (Francesco Bodocci) in progress. Intermixed with the redshirt players are talented recruits who have played since their arrival in Charlottesville.

A couple of interesting points about the redshirt strategy at Virginia besides the fact that I love it: First, if CTB can get kids with the maturity and foresight to see the advantages both athletically and academically of taking a redshirt year, Virginia is already ahead of the game. The second key point – not all of the redshirt players are off the radar “fliers”. Diakite, Huff, Hunter, and Hall were all top 40-100 recruits. In each of these instances, Tony Bennett has taken talented, highly recruited kids and taken their least productive years in Charlottesville as overwhelmed freshmen adjusting to the speed of the game and learning Virginia’s stifling pack-line defense and traded it for their most productive year as a 5th-year senior. Devon Hall is the classic example of why this is an outstanding strategy – if you can find the right kids.

The redshirt strategy is also why Virginia’s recruiting will run in maddening cycles. Top 40 kids with talent enough to crack any line-up in the nation aren’t coming to Virginia. Top 40-100 recruits in 2018 look at the Virginia roster and see it is packed with talented players, 4 of whom have a redshirt season under their belts and lots of eligibility remaining. From their view, Virginia might be a 2 year wait before they garner significant minutes. Is anyone shocked those kids have, thus far, decided to start their college careers elsewhere? So for his ’18 class, Coach Bennett made the best pitch he could for kids who would light up the recruiting rankings and missed. Top 100 recruits can look at a roster, watch the steady progression of current players, and decide if Virginia is the right fit for them. In 2018 they decided it wasn’t.

2019 will be a different story. Significant minutes will be up for grabs when Devon Hall, Nigel Johnson, and Isaiah Wilkins graduate. There might still be a wait (or hopefully a redshirt year) in the future for top 100 kids coming to Virginia in the 2019 class, but there are more routes to playing time and the wait for significant minutes might be one year away instead of two.

All of this is not to say there is not risk in Tony Bennett’s strategy. His last two recruiting classes are more “London Perentes” than “Kyle Guy”. Sometimes Bennett misses on a recruit – a player does not develop like we all hope or runs out of patience competing for playing time. From the 2017 & 2018 recruiting classes, I will be shocked if all 4 turn out to be strong ACC players. Maybe he has found the next Jared Reuter instead of the next Joe Harris. We just don’t know yet, but it is highly unlikely that CTB whiffs on all 4 players. It is more likely that CTB found at least 2 more London Perentes or Jack Salts who can help Virginia stay at or near the top of the toughest basketball conference in the nation.

The most important reality for Virginia fans is that there is not another path to basketball relevance. I have not spoken to any fans who want to play the one & done game. That space is already occupied. Kentucky, Duke, and uNC have sacrificed their academic integrity for the right to remain basketball blue bloods. I don’t fault them for it, but it is just the stark reality. Virginia does not have a history and a story to compete for top 15 recruits with these programs, so a head-2-head strategy to “out-Duke” Duke is doomed for failure. So CTB and his staff will compete for kids in the bottom half of the top 100, look for hidden gems, and redshirt as many as possible.

The 2017-18 season is just underway and Virginia has already climbed the polls based on their performance to date and history of quality play the past 6 years. Virginia’s ranking may be a little lofty this early in the season, but this team is packed with talented players many of whom have an extra year of development and maturity under their belts. When March madness rolls around, I expect Virginia to be in the thick of it again – playing maddening defense that will confound opponents and irk journalists. If Virginia is going to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament in March it will be on the backs of redshirt players augmenting the production of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome.

Virginia won’t have as many NBA players on the roster in 2017-18 as Kentucky or uNC, but they might win as many or more games. Winning is the best and Virginia basketball does it a lot. Winning differently and I would argue in better fashion, is what makes Virginia a truly standout program. We can thank Tony Bennett and his staff for the return to the top of the basketball pyramid, but we have to endure the recruiting realities of being the different kid on the block. My best advice for Virginia fans, trust Coach Bennett, trust the system, trust the recruiting, and strap in, its a good ride – maybe not as good as the bitcoin ride, but it likely has a higher probability for sustained success.

Kenny Carpenter Becomes the Offensive Force Cleveland State Needs

It’s been a rather interesting roller coaster ride for Cleveland State senior guard Kenny Carpenter. Having arrived in 2014, along with Terrelle Hales, he found himself in the shadows of what was then a strong rotation of upperclassmen.

As a consequence, he found himself in the shadows, playing limited minutes during his first year, with the noted exception of the last game of the season, a CIT match-up against NJIT. During that loss, fans saw a glimpse of what could be, with Carpenter racking up six points, three assists and grabbing a team-high seven boards.

But it seemed as if in the subsequent years, Carpenter continued to remain as a bit player for the Vikings. This was in spite of a sophomore year in which he got the starting nod eight times, averaged around 20 minutes per game and capped it off with a 24-point performance against UIC.

Head coach Gary Waters, by Carpenter’s junior year, began looking to other players in his backcourt, particularly Rob Edwards, Kash Thomas and Bobby Word. And Carpenter saw less playing time diminish and, in turn, his production.

You would have understood that the situation could have prompted Carpenter, like others during the Waters era, to seek life elsewhere. And you certainly wouldn’t have been surprised if he had decided to transfer upon the arrival of new head coach Dennis Felton.

But instead of working on finding a new opportunity, Carpenter decided to make a case to expound on his existing one. And as a result, he has become the primary scoring option for Cleveland State.

Even as the season started, most fans considered Carpenter as a bit of a wild card in terms of what he’d eventually contribute during the season. As it turns out, he’s leading the team in scoring with 14.4 points a game and in assists with three per game.

While his scoring and assists have gone up, so, too, has his shooting percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. Carpenter currently ranks in the Top 10 in the Horizon League in both categories, with a field-goal percentage of 50.5 percent and notching a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Most importantly, during the shaky start for the Vikings, in which inconsistently has been a running theme, Carpenter has been one of the few certainties that Felton can rely on. In fact, Felton has gone out of his way to gush about the work that Carpenter has put into his game, speaking frequently about how he’s in the gym at least three times a day.

The strong work ethic off the court and sure footing on it has clearly provided a spark to the entire team. And Felton has looked to Carpenter as someone who can provide the leadership that will help Cleveland State in both the immediate and distant future, specifically as it relates to the freshman class that includes backcourt sensation Tyree Appleby.

As the team continues to work out the kinks in its game, one of which still appears to be closing out games (with Kent State and Western Michigan being recent examples), Carpenter will remain the primary source of CSU’s offense. And don’t be surprised if he ends up making a case for an all-conference nod, too.

E-mail Bob at bob.mcdonald@campuspressbox.com or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

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Hard Lessons in Learning How to Win for Cleveland State

Cleveland State might be forgiven for feeling its way through the non-conference schedule, given the new coaching staff and the need to have the new players and upperclassmen start gelling as a team. However, with the slate head coach Dennis Felton and company put together in the ramp-up to the Horizon League games, the Vikings have been dropped into the deep end of the pool and are asked to swim back to shore.

In the first six games, it’s clear that learning to win has been a lesson that has seen Cleveland State take steps forward and backward. Taking away the blowout at Rutgers, and you can see two, perhaps three games early on that could have been winnable for the Vikings.

But when you have a team with a new coach and whose veterans have suffered from back-to-back 20-loss seasons, the road to completing the final lessons in winning will be winding and, at times, full of potholes.

The primary lesson, at least in the early going, has been the ability to close out games. Against East Carolina and Central Connecticut State, Cleveland State was leading in the final minutes. And, in both cases, offensive outages, coupled with defensive lapses, proved to be too much to overcome at the end of both contests.

As frustrating as the losses have been (and you were all warned about this, by the way), you have gotten the sense that it was only a matter of time before the Vikings were finally able to get over the hump. And Wednesday’s match-up against Arkansas State was a sign that things were taking a turn in the right direction.

Sure, Cleveland State had kept letting the Red Wolves back into the game, as it had against ECU and CCSU. But this time, the Vikings hunkered down, and bolstered by a key block by Bobby Word and a defensive set that led to an unforced error by Arkansas State, CSU came through with the 75-72 victory.

“We talked about the first year and how important it is to build your culture and set a high standard of excellence,” Felton told The News-Herald after the win.

If any of this sounds familiar to longtime Cleveland State fans, that’s likely because the Vikings have been in this situation before. It was 11 years ago, to be exact when Gary Waters took over as the head coach after years of poor-to-middling teams capped by four straight 20-loss seasons.

That, as it seems, is where the similarities end. Waters, in his first year, was given the latitude to ease Cleveland State back on the winning track, bringing transfers like Cedric Jackson, Chris Moore and George Tandy into the mix, starting in Year Two.

Felton, on the other hand, has taken a different approach. First, he’s called on the senior holdovers from the Waters era, specifically Word, Kenny Carpenter and Anthony Wright, to step up in the starting rotation. In addition, lending to a sense of urgency, the new players he’s brought into the mix, freshmen Stefan Kenic and Tyree Appleby, along with Northern Illinois transfer Dontel Highsmith, have played big minutes so far this season.

While the Arkansas State win was a much-needed boost, the non-conference road doesn’t get any easier, which includes tough road contests against Top 25 teams Cincinnati and Michigan State. That said, the Vikings appear to be in a better position than preseason pundits saw them, and with the volatility of the Horizon League, don’t be surprised if they pull out some wins nobody expected.

Email Bob at bob.mcdonald@campuspressbox.com or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Image via CSUVikings.com

Cleveland State Is a Good Team…In the Future

After Saturday’s 67-57 loss to Akron, one thing was made very clear: Cleveland State, as a whole, is not a bad team. The problem is that this year, the Vikings are going to drive fans utterly insane.

While the preseason expectations have been pretty low, by all accounts, there has been some reason to think that CSU will outperform predictions. Even head coach Dennis Felton is optimistic that his team will overachieve this season.

“We want to be better than we are supposed to be,” Felton said to The Reserve prior to the start of the season. “What that translates to in term of wins and losses, there is no way for me to know that.”

And for the first half of the Zips game, the Vikings absolutely were better, out-hustling, out-muscling and out-playing Akron at every turn. Unfortunately, some of the old Cleveland State bugaboos (poor three-point shooting and foul troubles), along with some new ones (the abysmal 40 percent from the free-throw line) ultimately cost CSU the game.

Then the Vikings ran into Rutgers on Tuesday.

The Scarlet Knights pushed Cleveland State around in the second half. That, coupled with the fact that the Vikings decided that this wasn’t really the game for the offense to show up, led to a 70-38 drubbing.

It’s not hard to see why, two games in, fans are dread what lies ahead. Offensively, the five seniors (Terrelle Hales is currently out) are averaging 24 points per game. The team as a whole is shooting 14.6 percent from beyond the arc, and the free-throw shooting has been even more atrocious.

All of this said, however, this can be viewed less as a failure on Felton’s part to work with what he has and more as an indictment on Gary Waters’ dwindling recruiting prowess in his final years as head coach. With an entire recruiting class (2015) no longer on the team and his 2014 and 2016 classes unable to match their defensive intensity with even a glimmer of offense, Felton’s first year was doomed from the start.

As Cleveland State preps for its home opener against Coppin State, fans have to be wondering what the appeal of this team will be as the season wears on. And while Felton will remain optimistic on his team’s performances in the coming months, the people he’s trying to convince to buy tickets, an already historically cynical bunch, are apt to disagree.

When you go beyond the surface, it looks as if Felton has already taken the frustrations of this season into consideration and has started building the foundation from which he’ll rebuild the program.

If you need any further proof of this, look no further than freshmen Stefan Kenic and Tyree Appleby. Kenic, the 6-9 Serbian, has already landed a spot in the starting lineup, and it isn’t very hard to see why.

With a dearth of offensive options for the Vikings, Kenic, in the first two games, has stepped up to the challenge. In fact, he currently leads the team in three-point shooting. Appleby, on the other hand, has provided a spark off the bench and clearly has shown no fear as it comes to slashing to the basket, as he did on more than one occasion in the first two games.

As freshmen, of course, there is certainly room for improvement for both players. Kenic will need to further develop his presence on the offensive glass, while Appleby will need to boost his free-throw shooting. And as the season wears on, Felton will look for ways to cut down their turnovers (both average three per game).

However, if you’re a casual fan and don’t want to get caught up in the frustration of the roller coaster this season is looking more likely to be, there’s always next year.

The one gift Waters gave Felton was a great deal of flexibility in recruiting. And with only two Waters holdovers (Kash Thomas and Evan Clayborne), that has given Felton opportunities to shape the Viking roster in his own image.

In addition to Kenic and Appleby, you can expect to see more of Northern Illinois transfer Dontel Highsmith once he’s finished completing his three-game suspension for breaking team rules. There’s also freshman Shawn Christian, who has yet to see action. But with offense coming at a premium for CSU, what could it hurt to give him some minutes?

Even before the fall signing period began, Felton had already brought on some size with 6-8 forward Algevon Eichelberger, who will be available next year after transferring from DePaul. Cleveland State has also gotten Wayne (MI) Memorial combo guard Rashad Williams to sign at the beginning of the fall signing period and his AAU teammate, 6-9 forward Deante “Spider” Johnson, signed Wednesday. The Vikings have another verbal commitment Kenic’s Serbian teammate Uros Plavsic, whose 7-1 frame makes him the tallest player CSU will have had since Aaron Pogue.

The future for the Vikings looks far brighter than the present current looks like. Then again, as they say, it’s always the darkest before dawn.

Email Bob at bob.mcdonald@campuspressbox.com or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

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Cleveland State’s Offensive Hopes Center Around an Improved Word

Make no mistake. The departure of Rob Edwards from Cleveland State was a major blow. The Vikings’ leading scorer was poised to have a breakout junior campaign but opted to transfer to Arizona State instead of making the transition from Gary Waters to Dennis Felton.

That said, Edwards was only part of CSU’s offensive picture from last season that has been wiped away. Demonte Flannigan’s points also won’t be there for Felton, as the starting forward graduated. Between Flannigan and Edwards, the Vikings will be missing out on nearly 41 percent of its scoring from last year.

Some might look at the incoming set of recruits to make up the difference. But the new class, which includes, freshmen Shawn Christian, Stefan Kenic and Tyree Appleby, as well as transfer Donte Highsmith, is kind of a wildcard, even though there is evidence from the Thursday exhibition against Cedarville that this group can fill some of those gaps.

What fans should look for this season, in addition to the prospect of throwing the new class into the fire immediately, is the leadership of the upperclassmen. And with six seniors on the roster, it’s little wonder that Felton should be able to look within to find some points.

And realistically, Felton should have to look no further than one of those seniors in the backcourt: Bobby Word.

While sophomore point guard Kash Thomas may certainly be a factor on the offensive end, depending on how quickly he comes back from a concussion, he will need some people to pass the ball to. And Word would qualify as those scoring options for Thomas.

Word, the senior transfer from Oral Roberts, would be the best choice, given that he is still slated to be in the starting rotation. He finished the 2015-16 campaign third on the team in scoring, matching Flannigan’s 11.1 points-per-contest. He also made an early splash that included a season-high 25 points against Western Michigan.

But as the season wore on, the three-point shooting that Word became known for got away from him, and he found himself in quite an offensive funk. The low point game in back-to-back games in February against Oakland and Valparaiso. The perfect storm of poor three-point shooting (0 percent) and fouling out effectively neutralized Word as an offensive concern.

Even as Felton has committed to a positionless system on the court, Word is expected to play a key role. And while the game situations might dictate that Felton plays multiple guards beyond the three that have been a Waters signature lineup, Word has the opportunity to be a focal point of the offense.

For Word to accomplish this, of course, he will need to cut down on the shooting slumps that bedeviled him for a good part of 2015-16. And if the droughts happen, they need to end rather quickly.

Such was the case during the exhibition against Cedarville. Even though he was relatively quiet offensively, Word would eventually drop six of 12 shots, including a pair of three-pointers, tallying 14 points before leaving the game with 5:56 left. Word also added four assists, three rebounds and a pair of steals.

With the opener at Akron on November 11th looming, Word is already emerging as the senior leader Felton needs in his inaugural campaign. That said, it’s important for Word to remain consistent on the offensive end if Cleveland State hopes to outperform the low expectations set forth by preseason prognosticators.

Email Bob at bob.mcdonald@campuspressbox.com or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Image via CSUVikings.com