CSU Vikings, Featured

New-look CSU Vikings get first win of 2015-16

After a slow first half, a new-look Cleveland State team ran away from the Division II Malone Pioneers, claiming their first victory of the season by a tally of 62-46. The Vikes trailed at the half, 23-22, thanks in large part to Malone taking care of the ball. CSU wants to press and run this season, but they had just one steal and zero fast break points in the game’s first 20 minutes.

In the second half, however, they turned up the pressure. CSU went on a defense-driven 19-1 run, capped off by a three from freshman Jeron Rogers with 10:43 to play. Every one of the Vikings’ points during that stretch came via layup, dunk, three, or free throw. They were able to turn Malone over and, after a wasteful first half, make the most of their opportunities both inside and out. Cleveland State shot 37 percent and made no three-pointers in the first half. They converted 48 percent of their second half shots, including 4-of-7 triples.

“We really got our pressure going, got two or three straight turnovers, and were able to convert those and get a little hot streak going,” said senior forward Vinny Zollo.

Many things look the same as they did last year inside the Wolstein Center. The court is the same, surrounded by the familiar sea of green seats. The home uniforms are the same, with green lettering, numbers, and trim over white fabric. MJ the DJ — whose star has risen a bit since last season; he’s producing beats for Cavs guard Iman Shumpert these days — still plays hype man and provides the soundtrack. Rascal House Pizza still gives away pie to lucky fans. Vikings head coach Gary Waters still prowls the sidelines with a look on his face that suggests he’s between unpleasant bowel movements.

Yes sir, it’s all the same at CSU this year. With the notable exception, that is, of the guys playing the games.

The 2015-16 Vikings feature 11 players from last year’s team, but few among them were true contributors. Only three players — Andre Yates, Vinny Zollo, and Terrell Hales — played more than 10 minutes per game. Yates is the team’s top returning scorer, having averaged 6.0 points per game in 2014-15. The departures of Trey Lewis (transfer to Louisville), Anton Grady (transfer to Wichita State), and Charlie Lee and Marlin Mason (to graduation) meant that 76 percent of last year’s scoring was out the door. Suffice it to say that there are opportunities to be seized this year.

“I won’t say that I was excited when [Lewis and Grady] left,” Zollo said. “I don’t think anybody would say that. But I think when opportunity shines on certain people, when they put in the work and the preparation, and you know you’re going to be relied on a heavy amount, it changes your perspective of the program that you’re in.”

For at least one game, junior forward Demonte Flannigan was the one to capitalize. The 6-foot-7 forward had the game of his collegiate career, finishing with 22 points, 17 rebounds, and 2 blocks. He shot a tidy 9-of-12 from the floor and only turned the ball over twice. He posted up early and often, and in various spots. He set up on each block, along the baseline, and at the elbows, influencing the game from each location. Malone sent double teams his way in the second half, but by that point much of the damage had been done. Flannigan’s game looked reminiscent of Anton Grady, who made his bones in many of the same zones.

Perhaps trying to put the departed far in the rear view, Gary Waters shot that comparison down. “That wasn’t Anton-like,” the coach said. “That was Demonte-like.”

Flannigan struggled in the season opener against Akron, a 65-53 loss, scoring 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting in 27 minutes. He had eight rebounds and two blocks against the Zips, but didn’t impact that game nearly as much as he did Tuesday’s. He attributed his effectiveness against Malone to focusing more on going inside and hitting the boards hard. (One can also assume that a D-2 team offers less resistance than a competitive mid-major program.)

“I think I should’ve done better getting more rebounds and scoring more inside [against Akron], so I decided I’d do that this game,” Flannigan said. “Last game I barely posted up. I just attacked the glass [tonight]. Every time the ball went up I just went in to try and get a rebound.”

That Tristan Thompson-like aggressiveness will suit Flannigan just fine. He will likely have a tougher go of it inside against bigger competition — no Malone player taller than 6-8 saw meaningful playing time — but his work in the paint is an encouraging development. Gary Waters has long preferred attacking the basket to letting fly from deep. A reliable post-up option would provide a fulcrum for the rest of the offense to operate around and take some pressure off of CSU’s young guards.

Senior forward Vinny Zollo had a solid if unspectacular game, totaling 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists in 28 minutes. He was content to keep the ball moving, taking just seven shots on the evening. His greatest contribution may have been an intangible one. With CSU losing 143 starts’ worth of players from last year, Zollo looks to be stepping up as a leader. He played traffic cop on the floor and was vocal on the bench throughout Tuesday’s contest. After the game, Zollo spoke of his (and Flannigan’s) move into a leadership position.

“Having a new unit, with four or five new guys that are making an impact on this team, I think me and ‘Te [Flannigan] definitely felt that during the offseason,” said Zollo of his newfound veteran responsibility. “I think when you know going into the year that your team’s going to rely on you and a large part of our success will be our efforts…I think that we both — and a lot of the guys who are going to lead this team — have taken that responsibility and recognized it early, recognized it in the offseason, and really put in a lot of work.”

Perhaps the toughest void for this year’s Vikings to fill will be in the backcourt. Both Trey Lewis and Charlie Lee were capable, threatening ballhandlers who had a firm grasp of the CSU offensive scheme. In their absence, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of junior Andre Yates, sophomores Terrell Hales and Kenny Carpenter, and freshmen Rob Edwards and Daniel Levitt.

Yates had 10 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 steals in 28 minutes; he also had 5 turnovers. Hales, a rangy defensive-minded type, played a game-high 33 minutes, finishing with five points, three assists, and two steals against just one turnover. Edwards was threatening when attacking the basket, but struggled to convert en route to a two-point, 1-of-9 performance.1 Levitt was 0-of-4 in 15 minutes. Yates, Hales, and Carpenter started the game, with Edwards replacing the latter to open the second half.

“It was a little questionable, to be honest,” Waters said of his guard play Tuesday. “They’ll grow and they’ll get better.  I’m a believer you win with guards. You got great guards, you can win most games you play. That’s what I gotta get…We gotta get some consistency.”

Consistency may be hard to come by. With so many young players, many of whom are playing together for the first time and in a new system, establishing good habits will be important. It was evident Tuesday night that the Vikings are not yet cohesive on either end; that’s hardly a crime. There were, however, glimpses of what could be. Perhaps the best sequence for CSU came about four minutes into the second half. Andre Yates had just made a three, the Vikings’ first of the game. A backcourt trap led to an errant Malone pass, which Yates dove after on the floor. He hit a streaking Zollo, who finished with a two-hand dunk. It was plays like that that fueled their big second half run. Plays like that, defined by teamwork and hustle, can serve to hide some of their blemishes.

The new-look Vikes did good things Tuesday. The challenge now is to reduce them from highlight to ho-hum.

Cleveland State’s next game is at Rhode Island this Saturday. They travel to Cancun next week, and play at No. 3 ranked Maryland next Saturday.

  1. One play by Edwards reminded me very much of Dion Waiters. He had an open three on the left wing, but took a couple dribbles before taking a contested two-pointer. Again, it’s a young squad. []