College Basketball, CSU Vikings

Cleveland State’s Quest for Big Dance Ends in Valparaiso

Cleveland State Vikings
Will Gibson/WFNY

It wasn’t a surprising result. They were playing on the road. They were playing on the second night of a back-to-back. They were playing the conference champions. They were playing against a bigger team, a stronger team, perhaps a more skilled team. So it is not much of a shocker that the Cleveland State Vikings’ season ended with a 60-55 Horizon League tournament semi-final loss to the Valparaiso Crusaders.

There is more to the story, however. The game’s tenor differed from that when the teams met in Cleveland a week earlier. The Vikings were ready for this one. Whereas Cleveland State looked a touch overwhelmed at home―they chased the game like a child clambering up a slick playground slide; even as they threatened to reach their goal, there was never a sense of real possibility―they were up for the task on the road.

They were both more aggressive and better prepared in Indiana. They fell into a 9-2 hole in the game’s first three minutes, but they recovered to take the lead in the next two. Anton Grady scored six points and assisted on a Marlin Mason layup, and that 8-0 run helped the Vikings equalize the momentum.

They adjusted their offense to better counter the Crusaders constantly doubling Grady. The junior from Cleveland Central Catholic operated more from the elbows than the low post on Saturday, which offered more avenues for passing out of double coverage, especially to cutters in the paint.

Grady was outstanding, both scoring and distributing. He finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists. He shot 7-of-14 from the field and 6-of-7 from the line en route to his ninth double-double of the season. He played 38 of 40 possible minutes, and you knew where he was during every one of them, including the game’s deciding moments.

Grady scored and was fouled inside with eight seconds remaining. The bucket cut Valpo’s lead to 58-55. His free throw bounced off of the back rim, and Trey Lewis swooped in for the offensive rebound. Rather than kick the ball outside, Lewis went up in traffic hoping to draw a foul. The zebras held onto their whistles, the ball skittered loose toward the near corner, and possession went to Valpo when Andre Yates’ diving attempt came up short. Valpo added two more free throws, and the game was over.

They were often good but rarely great, always competitive but seldom dominant.

The Vikings didn’t blink this time. The game was within their grasp. Alas, was is the operative word there.

Alec Peters was superb for Valparaiso. The 6-9 junior scored 22 points on 7-of-14 shooting, and was a perfect 7-of-7 from the foul line. He scored a crucial basket late, slithering through the Viking defense to convert a layup to extend Valpo’s lead to 56-53 with 42 seconds to go.

That Peters layup came shortly after a Trey Lewis stepback three tied it at 53 with 2:09 to go. Lewis struggled for much of the game before coming alive for eight points in a four-plus minute stretch in the second half. He shot just 4-of-14 for the game, but that hot spell helped pull CSU level after trailing by nine with 7:17 to go.

In the aggregate, there was little difference in how the teams played. Cleveland State shot 39 percent from the field, and Valpo 38 percent. CSU was 4-15 on threes, Valpo was 5-17. Both teams had seven turnovers. Both had 10 assists. The Vikings had more steals, and the Crusaders more blocks. The teams played similarly. Valpo just played a little better.

There were a few categories in which Valparaiso held greater advantages: Valpo bettered Cleveland State in rebounding (36-31, 13-10 offensive), points in the paint (24-19), and second chance points (13-7). They also shot and made more free throws (17-of-23 compared to CSU’s 11-of-15).

The second half free throw discrepancy was especially significant: Valparaiso shot 21 free throws, and Cleveland State shot 2. The Crusaders were in the bonus with 9:17 to go, and they drew 14 fouls in the second half overall. Some of those fouls against CSU were late clock-stopping hacks, and some were silly reach-ins on the perimeter, but the disparity in the numbers is still striking. Perhaps Valpo was that much more aggressive than the Vikings, and perhaps they benefited from some homespun officiating. Either way, they capitalized on their opportunities from the stripe.

Mix the bits about rebounding, interior scoring, and free throws together, and the story of the game goes like this: the guys in the yellow shirts were bigger, so they staked a claim to whatever real estate they chose. They happened to choose the most valuable real estate, so the smaller guys in the green shirts tried to stop them. In doing so they broke the rules, and by said rules the yellow team received more opportunities to score points. And they did score more points, so they won the game, so now they get to play more basketball. The end.


As for the Vikings, their season ends earlier than they would have liked. The goal of any college team―and especially a mid-major, which CSU is despite their head coach’s distaste for the term―is to make the NCAA Tournament. A trip to the big dance was not in the cards this season, and in truth, a loss in the conference tournament semi-finals feels about right for how Cleveland State played all season. They were often good but rarely great, always competitive but seldom dominant. Defense kept them in most every game, but scoring too often felt like pulling teeth.

They may play postseason ball yet, but that would come in a relatively off-brand tourney like the Postseason Tournament, in which they played last season. They lost to Ohio in the first round 64-62.

Any further games aside, the season’s end marks the end of three CSU seniors’ college careers: point guard Charlie Lee, forward Marlin Mason, and reserve Dave Goodwater. Lee and Mason were important contributors to the Viking cause all season, and they will not be easily replaced.

Lee was the team’s floor general and carried the loudest voice, and his departure will leave a leadership vacuum for the 2015-16 season, presumably to be filled by rising seniors Lewis and Grady. Lee scored 10 points in 38 minutes in his final game, adding two rebounds, two assists, and a steal. He finishes his Viking career having played 120 games, totaling 1,115 points (9.3 per game), 448 assists (3.7) and 129 steals (1.1). The Milwaukee native is one of four players in school history to finish with better than 1,000 points and 400 assists, and he is the program’s all-time leading free throw shooter at 88 percent.

Mason, a 6-6 forward from Detroit Cass Tech, was perhaps the most versatile Viking in 2014-15. He proved able to play inside and out, and produced some of the year’s finest highlights. He totaled six points and three blocks in his finale. He missed three games this season with flu-like symptoms, and underwent two spinal taps when the illness was feared to be meningitis. Mason leaves the program having totaled 737 points, 491 rebounds, and 100 blocks in 111 career games. He shot better than 47 percent from the field and 73 from the free throw line in his four years as a Viking.

Goodwater did not play in the season’s final game, and saw time in two contests on the season. The Solon native transferred from Division II Malone University in Canton.

Next year’s team will bring back most of this season’s key players, most notably Lewis and Grady. Lee and Mason’s departures will open up two starting spots, and it will be interesting to see who claims them. Rising junior Andre Yates and senior-to-be Kaza Keane look to be the best bets to take over Lee’s backcourt position. Yates proved himself as a capable defender in his first season as a Viking1, and the lefty scored nine points off the bench in the semi-final against Valpo. Keane was a jack-of-all-trades for Cleveland State and is a natural distributor. Both would be well-served to improve their shooting, a constant CSU bugaboo.

The frontcourt spot next to Grady could be a trickier fill. Neither Vinny Zollo, Demonte Flannigan, or Aaron Scales fully earned Gary Waters’ trust this season. Zollo’s shooting is a potential asset, but his defending leaves a lot to be desired. Flannigan and Scales are both wide bodies, but showed little in terms of value-added skill. Next year’s team is again likely to be perimeter-dominant, but there are minutes to be had for big men.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, the story of the 2014-15 Cleveland State Vikings season is all but complete. It does not finish with a terribly happy ending, but this team has a lot to be proud of. They were small and had precious few threatening shooters, and they lost last season’s leading scorer when Bryn Forbes transferred to Michigan State.

But even to the bitter, unfulfilling end, this team battled. They were among the toughest outs in the league. They hung tough at Louisville and Virginia. They played hard and conducted themselves like pros. They took pride in representing their university and their city. They made no excuses. They should find solace in all of these things.

Yet, they won’t be satisfied with this campaign, and nor should they be. No one plays for moral victories. Now, it’s a matter of how they retool for next season. I, for one, look forward to seeing the results. Go Vikes.

  1. He transferred from Creighton. []