College Basketball, CSU Vikings

Cleveland State falls to Toledo, now 2-5 on the season

Let’s check in on our young Cleveland State Vikings, shall we? Let me start with an apology that coverage was lacking during the Thanksgiving weekend. The Vikes were busy over the holiday, playing two games in Cancun and then squaring off with No. 2 ranked Maryland in College Park. CSU won their first game of that spell — a 57-52 win over Rider in Mexico on Tuesday, Nov. 24 — led by 17 points from freshman guard Rob Edwards. They dropped their next three, including last night’s 76-65 loss to Toledo.

In their second game in Cancun, on Nov. 25, they lost to the now 6-0 South Dakota State Jackrabbits, 77-66. They faced the Jackrabbits by virtue of their win over Rider, which put them through to the so-called title game in the so-called Mayan division. (A storied history, the Cancun Challenge does not have. You didn’t miss the big Morgan State-Liberty showdown last year, did you?) Sophomore guard Kenny Carpenter gave Cleveland State a boost with 17 points off the bench, but a balanced South Dakota State attack — four players scored in double figures — was too much to overcome.

The Vikings put forth a hell of an effort against the Terrapins at Maryland on Saturday, Nov. 28, in a game that was technically a continuation of the Cancun Challenge. They took a 27-26 lead midway through the first half, and trailed by a narrow 37-33 margin at the intermission. They outrebounded the Terps (albeit by one) in the first half and made 52 percent of their shots. They were hanging in there, just as they did against the Wildcats in Kentucky a couple years back.

The story of the young season, in my eyes, has been the play of freshman guard Rob Edwards.

In the end, however, the differences in size, talent, and experience were too much to bear. Diamond Stone, the Terrapins’ 6-foot-10, 255-pound freshman, started throwing his weight around inside. 6-foot-9 forward Robert Carter finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds. Sophomore guard Jared Nickens hit 4-of-6 threes off the bench en route to 16 points. Maryland was able to break CSU’s press and withstand its pressure with relative ease — the Vikings had just three steals. Cleveland State fought bravely, but alas, they kept pace for 400 meters in an 800-meter race. Maryland scored the first eight points of the second half and never looked back, pulling away for an 80-63 victory. Demonte Flannigan paced the Vikings with 20 points.

That brings us to Wednesday night’s game against the Rockets in Toledo. Cleveland State fell into a bit of a pit early, going down 11-4 after five minutes and showing all of the fragility that comes with a youth-heavy team without a clear leader.1 Toledo wisely spent much of the game in a zone defense. They crashed down on CSU’s post players and dared the Vikings to beat them from deep. In a related story, Cleveland State entered the game shooting 38 percent from the field and 26 percent on threes. It was a sound strategy.

CSU trailed by 13 at halftime and by as much as 20 in the second half. They narrowed the margin to as little as 10 with 4:17 to go, but there was never a real sense that they could come all the way back. Toledo kept Cleveland State at arm’s length and coasted to the 76-65 win. Rob Edwards led the Vikings with 15 points (3-of-12 shooting, 2-of-4 threes, 7-of-9 free throws) and Vinny Zollo added 14 on a tidy 6-of-8 shooting.

For much of the game the Vikings were simply stagnant. There was too much catch-and-pause, catch-and-fake, catch-and-not-drive-or-shoot. Often they looked to be overthinking, trying to remember the next step of the play. They did pick it up in the second half and had some moments of nice ball movement. When they just played basketball — driving into open lanes, kicking out to open shooters, swinging the ball around the horn, and taking the avenues that were offered — they looked pretty good. The trick for them will be making that second nature.

The story of the young season, in my eyes, has been the play of freshman guard Rob Edwards. The 18-year-old from Detroit’s Cass Tech (the same school that produced sophomore Kenny Carpenter) is a bulldog of a guard, and he wasted little time in forcing his way into the starting lineup. In most every Cleveland State game this season, including at Maryland, Edwards has been relentless in attacking the rim. He doesn’t totally know what to do once he gets into the lane, but getting there consistently is a start. He is averaging over 30 minutes a game, easily the most among the Viking freshmen.

And he looks to be a tough SOB. Late in the first half against Toledo, he drove the lane and drew a foul. Rockets center Zach Garber caught him with a little incidental contact after the whistle, to which Edwards took offense. Garber offered a conciliatory hand, which the young Viking slapped away. It won’t win him any sportsmanship awards, but I like it. Cleveland State isn’t going to win pretty. If they want to steal a few games here and there, they’re going to have to be tough. I like Rob. He reminds me of Dion Waiters, and I mean that as a compliment.

Vinny Zollo’s performance against Toledo was encouraging. 14 points in 23 minutes is terrific. But he needs to be more aggressive, and consistent, and consistently aggressive. His eight shot attempts against the Rockets were a season high. He shouldn’t be shy about getting more shots up, especially from the outside. He is the only senior seeing substantial playing time right now. It’s admirable that he wants to get others involved, but this team needs shooting. He is one of the few who can provide it.

Cleveland State knew this was going to be a tough year from the jump. The specifics of why are becoming clearer with each game. They don’t have any one player they can truly lean on to get them points. Last year they had at least two. Edwards has shown promise, and junior forward Demonte Flannigan has looked to score in the post, but there isn’t a proper go-to guy on the team. Exacerbating that is the aforementioned stiffness of the offense. As a result, they need to be completely locked in on defense to have a shot at beating most teams. They play hard on that end, but they have lapses. A big man might over-help on a penetrating guard. A wing might suck in too much off of a shooter. A lazy pass on offense might lead to a runout. They’re going to make mistakes.

To make a cross-sport analogy, they remind me a bit of a football team running a triple-option offense. They’re methodical. They’re a bit stubborn. They’re more likely to score with strength than finesse. And if they fall behind by more than 10 points, they’re going to have a hard time coming back.

Cleveland State’s next game is at Quicken Loans Arena — you read that right — against Kent State this Saturday, December 5, at 3:30 p.m. Punch and pie

  1. In East Lansing, meanwhile, ex-Viking Bryn Forbes scored 20 for the Michigan State Spartans while Trey Lewis scored 21 for Louisville. Ah, what could have been. []