For a number of years during the Gary Waters era, Cleveland State developed a reputation for outperforming its initial slot in pre-season conference predictions.
Now, with the arrival of Dennis Felton, the Vikings, who had languished at the bottom of the Horizon League standings as a result of two consecutive 20-loss seasons, will have to beat the odds again in order to outpace low expectations.
Sure, patience is preached by many of the CSU faithful. But even Felton will tell you that patience will only get you so far in college basketball. And for a program with both a recent history of losing and a lack of fans showing up to the arena, the wait-and-see approach won’t win you new faces in the crowd.
However, you can almost feel the forgiveness for the potential of a third-straight losing season coming down the pike. Demote Flannigan and walk-on Tim Hasbargen have graduated, and leading scorer Rob Edwards has transferred to Arizona State. Edwards was joined in exiting by fellow Class of 2015 recruit Jibri Blount, who made his way to North Carolina Central, as well as walk-ons Daniel Levitt and Nelson Maxwell.
And those were the guys who actually played a minute for Cleveland State. Redshirts Gavin Peppers, Andy Lucien, and PJ Posey all chose new schools during the transition between Waters and Felton.
Still, even with all of these departures, you have to think that a team with six seniors on the roster should be able to rise above the low expectations set forth by, well, everybody.
And the focal point of this Viking attack must come from senior Bobby Word, who, along with sophomore point guard Kash Thomas, started all 31 games last season. Word, the Oral Roberts transfer, will need to improve upon his strong suit, three-point shooting, which fluctuated wildly during the 2016-17 campaign.
The remaining seniors will be fighting for a more prominent role, as none of them averaged more than 17 minutes per contest. The primary candidate on this front will be senior Anthony Wright, who will likely see a boost in playing time with the graduation of Flannigan, and sophomore Evan Clayborne. Also competing for time in the frontcourt will be seniors Derek Sloan, who started 23 games but only averaged 12 minutes, and Jamarcus Hairston.
Kenny Carpenter will also likely be using his senior year to make his case for additional minutes, as well Terrelle Hales, although Hales has established himself more as a rebounding threat rather than a scorer, which CSU desperately needs in the wake of Edwards’ departure.
Thomas, who made Cleveland State history to start every game as a freshman, is certainly poised to improve upon that initial campaign. Word will be one of Thomas’ primary benefactors, of course, but the Vikings will also look to some of the new faces on the squad, specifically Northern Illinois transfer Dontel Highsmith and incoming freshmen guards Tyree Appleby and Shawn Christian.
Felton has also made it clear that he’s expanding the CSU recruiting base internationally, as evidenced by the hiring of Drazen Zlovaric and the arrival of 6-9 forward Stefan Kenic, who spent this summer as part of the U20 Serbian National Team that competed in the FIBA Euro Championships. Rounding out the new faces are a pair of recent additions at the beginning of the fall semester, St. Ignatius grad Deven Stover and David Payne, who comes to the Vikings for Malcolm X College.
With all of the personnel changes with coaches and players, the leadership from the CSU veterans will have to shine through, particularly during the non-conference schedule. With teams like Rutgers, Cincinnati, Michigan State, Akron and Kent State on tap, among others, Felton’s squad is going to get to the New Year’s Day Horizon League opener against Youngstown State either battle-tested or completely demoralized. And given how the last two seasons under Waters went, the Vikings can’t afford for the latter to happen.
Moreover, Cleveland State, which has been picked anywhere from sixth to last in the conference by pre-season pundits, needs to aspire to the higher of those predictions. And while a Viking return to the upper echelon of the Horizon League would take a Herculean effort, another 20-loss season would smack in the face of any patience fans may have.
E-mail Bob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.
Image via CSUVikings.com