In 2012, Gary Waters saw a bright future for the Cleveland State Vikings. Perennial Horizon League power Butler, which had won at least a share of five of the previous six HL championships, left the conference to join the Atlantic 10 conference before finding their way to the revamped Big East. The Vikings were young but promising, with Anton Grady, Charlie Lee, and Marlin Mason all expected to become major contributors. With Butler out of the way, Waters saw a power vacuum, an opportunity for his team.
“Better get us now,” he said in an interview. “After this year, it’s over.
“The next four years will be a great time with these kids at Cleveland State.”
Flash forward to today, less than three years later, and the landscape surrounding the Wolstein Center looks much less sunny. Standout guard Trey Lewis announced his transfer to Louisville in early April. A couple weeks later, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Jermaine Kimbrough left CSU after eight years to join Eric Musselman’s staff at the University of Nevada.1
The latest domino to fall is the announcement that star forward Anton Grady will follow in Lewis’ (and before him, Bryn Forbes’) footsteps in transferring away from Cleveland State. Like Lewis, Grady is an immediately eligible fifth-year transfer; he missed a year due to injury and will graduate this spring. Grady and Lewis are both local products, having come from Cleveland Central Catholic and Garfield Heights, respectively, and it’s disheartening to see both leave Northeast Ohio — although Grady’s destination is not yet known.
Grady has posted some things online that may be alluding to his next move, but his Twitter account is private and thus I will not share them here. Suffice it to say that he has tweeted things about the importance of family and wondering aloud where his next basketball might be played. Per ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, Grady will have no shortage of suitors. The only sure thing for next season is that he won’t be wearing the Vikings’ green and white.
Cleveland State transfer Anton Grady told ESPN he has heard from: Kansas, K-State, Iowa St, Xavier, Pitt, Wichita St, Dayton, NC State, Neb.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) April 23, 2015
With Lewis and Grady, both All-Horizon League selections this past season, transferring, the Vikings are suddenly in full rebuild mode. Between those departures and Marlin Mason and Charlie Lee graduating, the Vikes go into next season without their four leading scorers from this year’s campaign. Suddenly, the roles of seniors-to-be Vinny Zollo and Kaza Keane and rising juniors Andre Yates, Aaron Scales, and Demonte Flannigan have grown much larger. Either Terrell Hales or Kenny Carpenter, both of whom saw time as freshmen, could crack the starting rotation.
The question is, then: What’s going on at Cleveland State?
It could be a series of unfortunate coincidences. Lewis’ transfer is a bummer, but it makes sense — the chance to play at a top-25 school and potentially catch the eye of NBA scouts is tough to pass up. Grady, who averaged over 14 points and nearly 8 rebounds per game last season, may wind up at a similarly big program. Kimbrough served under Gary Waters for a good long while and may have seen little opportunity for upward mobility — coaching alongside Musselman, who has been a head coach in the NBA,2 could open up new opportunities for him.
This is all, it should be said, mere conjecture.
In any event, Waters finds himself in a tough spot. Next season will be his 10th at Cleveland State. His teams are 176-127 in his nine years at the helm. He made great strides in his first three seasons, going from 10-21 (ninth place in the Horizon League) to 21-12 (and an NIT appearance) to 26-11 (including an NCAA Tournament win over Wake Forest). CSU’s last conference title came in 2010-11, and the team is 76-56 (40-26 in conference) since. The Vikings remain a respected mid-major program, but there is a sense that things have plateaued.
The Vikings still play in the 13,000-seat Wolstein Center, but averaged less than 2,000 fans per game last season. That number would look better if they played in a cozier gym, but the cavernous Wolstein Center is simply too large for the program, at least as it stands now. Waters’ salary is $340,000 per year — reasonable compared to multimillion dollar deals of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski or Louisville’s Rick Pitino, but nothing to sneeze at for an athletic department that just weeks ago was on the verge of cutting its wrestling program altogether.
This is not a call for Waters’ head. While some have surely been disappointed with the Vikings’ past few years, especially in light of the recent transfers, the program is in much better shape than it was a decade ago — they won 31 games total in four seasons from 2002-03 to 2005-06, and had just two winning seasons from 1993-94 to 2006-07.
Waters is (or at least seems to be) respected by his players, and he has established something of a recruiting pipeline from Detroit to Cleveland.3 He runs a mentorship program through which Vikings are connected to professionals in their desired field, sports-related or otherwise. Perhaps his on-court tactics could use some freshening up, but he runs a pretty solid program.
Fans may cry that the team needs more talent, but how would one propose accomplishing that, especially in today’s one-and-done NCAA? How would you recruit someone to play at Cleveland State? What’s the hook? And if you did get a star player or two, how would you convince them to stay?
These are the questions that Waters and CSU need to find answers for, preferably in short order. The 2015-16 outfit will bear little resemblance to the 2014-15 squad. Four departing players — Lewis, Grady, Lee, and Mason — each averaged over 26 minutes per game last season, and accounted for over 50 points. The Vikings averaged 68 as a team.
Waters has done well to make Cleveland State respectable. The seas around the Vikings, however, are growing choppier. Star players jumping ship is a bad look. It won’t be easy to get the program back on the right course. Such is life as the captain.