Cleveland State men’s basketball coach Gary Waters, throughout the course of one of the worst campaigns of his career last season, hinted that he wanted to start fresh for 2016-17. Nobody could really blame him, with a dismal 9-23 showing, a first-round conference tournament exit and turmoil at basically every turn.
Looking at what Waters has put together for this year, there’s really no telling what’s going to happen.
Even the college basketball pundits, in their annual prognostications, are varying wildly as to how the Vikings will end up in the Horizon League standings, from as high as fifth to as low as ninth. Even the official conference preseason rankings had CSU predicted to finish eighth.
Realistically, any of those predictions could be right because, honestly, nobody has a clue what Cleveland State is capable of.
One thing that can be said about this Viking squad is that the leader of this team is, in fact, a sophomore. That’s Rob Edwards. The All-Freshman guard, and pre-season Second Team All-Horizon League pick, seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the team in scoring, with 12.4 points per game. For a team that ranked at the bottom of all teams (not just the conference) in scoring at 60.8 points per contest, to get that type of production was sorely needed.
The problem was, though, that Edwards was far more efficient off the dribble than he was running the point. Actually, that was Cleveland State’s problem for the duration of the 2015-16 season.
While so much was made of the transfers by Trey Lewis and Anton Grady, the one thing that really killed CSU was the lack of a true point guard. That wasn’t supposed to be a problem for Waters, but his depth in the backcourt disintegrated even before the season began.
Kaza Keane, who was projected to be the starter, returned to his native Canada to thrive with national champion Carleton University. And Myles Hamilton, the other pure point guard on the roster, imploded, starting the season suspended and ending up kicked off the team after a verbal altercation during the Green Bay game. That left freshman walk-on Nelson Maxwell, and a patchwork of shooting guards left to shoulder the load.
Waters wasn’t about to tempt fate this year, snagging Laramie County (WY) Community College’s Gavin Peppers and freshman Kash Thomas from Quebec. In addition to their skills at point guard, both can provide another need from beyond the arc, as Peppers and Thomas shot 37 and 44 percent, respectively, from three-point range.
Beyond alleviating the point guard issue, Edwards should get much more help in the scoring department with the Cleveland State debut of Oral Roberts transfer Bobby Word. Averaging 8.4 points a game for the Golden Eagles, he saved his best for the end, including a 22-point effort against Loyola-Chicago in the CBI. Walk-on sharpshooter Daniel Levitt will also make his return after sitting out a huge chunk of the season with a knee injury.
As guard depth has long been a signature of the Waters era, it also means there’s probably going to be a risk of some odd men out, with playing time coming at a premium. Walk-on Tim Hasbargen from Germany will likely return to the end of the bench, now that the guard coffers have once again been filled.
But what of Kenny Carpenter and Terrelle Hales? Despite Hales’ strength on defense and Carpenter’s flashes of skill last year, the two juniors may find themselves on the outside looking in, especially if the bulk of the scoring is being provided by the backcourt.
Size is still a major issue for the Vikings, with no one over 6’8″. While this may not matter in the Horizon League contests (the key exceptions being UIC and preseason favorite Valparaiso), non-conference foes, such as Kentucky and Purdue, could have a field day.
That notwithstanding, there will be depth in the frontcourt, with the lone CSU senior, Demonte Flannigan, leading the way. As the team’s leading returning rebounder and second-leading scorer, the Villa Angela-St. Joseph’s product will need to keep out of foul trouble, an issue that plagued him much of last season.
Jibri Blount will also be providing key minutes at forward, coming back after his own impressive freshman year. Though hampered by an ankle injury down the stretch, Blount did make five starts last year.
They will be joined by 6’8″ juco transfer Jamarcus Hairston, a third-team Division II All-NJCAA player from Louisburg Junior College. Hairston, who averaged nine boards per game and possesses range beyond the arc, could be an x-factor for the Vikings, in terms of stretching out the floor.
A pair of other unknown quantities on the frontcourt will be another juco transfer, Anthony Wright, and Evan Clayborne, a freshman from Dayton Thurgood Marshall. Derek Sloan will also be returning for his junior year and, like Wright, will be rotating between guard and forward slots.
With so much change, Waters appears to be in win-now mode, perhaps for the first time since he’s been at Cleveland State. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the Vikings are really wildcards when it comes to where they’ll finish out the season.
That leads to the biggest question of all. If Cleveland State should somehow come out on the low end of preseason predictions, what becomes of Waters?
Conventional wisdom would lead you to believe that no matter the outcome this season, Waters would not face a day of reckoning until after a new athletic director is selected after John Parry retires.
Like the preseason predictions, Waters’ own future may very well be anyone’s guess.
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Image via CSUVikings.com