“Who won?” asked the friendly security guard at the Quicken Loans Arena parking garage.
“Valparaiso,” I answered. “Cleveland State scored 43 points. Season low.”
“Oooh,” he replied. “That’s not good.”
And that, sports fans, about sums it up. You don’t need to be an expert on Cleveland State, the Horizon League, or even basketball to understand that Tuesday night’s result was not a good one for the Vikings. The loss at the Q brings Cleveland State’s record to 8-19 on the season, 3-11 in Horizon League play. Last year’s team was 16-11 and 10-3, respectively, through 27 games. It is no surprise that this year’s CSU squad is worse than last year’s, what with the transfers and all, but that doesn’t make the 2015-16 campaign any easier to stomach.
The Valparaiso Crusaders entered Tuesday night’s game against Cleveland State as one of the best defensive teams in the country, full stop. In the country. Not just in the Horizon League or among mid-majors, but one of the best — arguably the best — in the whole gosh-darn nation at stopping opponents from scoring. This isn’t to say that they would shut down Villanova or Kansas or Oklahoma, but consider: Valparaiso entered the CSU game with Division I’s second-best opponent scoring average (59.5 points per game) and the top defensive rating (86.7), per Sports Reference.
Valparaiso entered Tuesday night’s game against CSU as one of the best defensive teams in the country, full stop
Their 66-43 win over an overmatched Cleveland State side will only burnish those credentials. Valpo held the Vikings to 52 points in their first matchup a few weeks back, and did even better this time around, holding CSU to its lowest scoring game of the season. Cleveland State was without forwards Vinny Zollo (suspension)1 and Jibri Blount (ankle injury). Neither is a huge scorer, but CSU could have used any help it could get. The Crusaders enjoyed a significant size advantage, and exacerbated it with sound movement, communication, and effort.
Valparaiso held CSU to 29 percent shooting, including 25 percent in the first half. At one point the Vikings missed 14 straight shots. Cleveland State committed 17 turnovers, 10 in the second half, which turned into 15 Crusader points. Valpo ran the Vikings off the three-point line, forcing them into a bunch of contested midrange jumpers off the dribble, most of which went begging. When CSU was able to get into the paint, 6-foot-10 center Vashil Fernandez was waiting for them; he had six or Valpo’s seven blocks.
CSU played fairly well on the other end, at least in the first half. They held Valpo to 29 points and 38 percent shooting before halftime, forced seven turnovers, and held their own on the boards. An undermanned and undersized Viking front line battled in the paint. Cleveland State kept the game close enough for it to be a game, at least in theory.
Alas, it is a two-half game, and the scoreline became more lopsided as time went on. Cleveland State led for exactly zero seconds of game time. After a Rob Edwards triple tied the game at 3-3 in the game’s first minute, Valpo stretched its lead like a team full of Armstrongs. They carried a 12-point lead into halftime and led by as many as 28 in the second half. They played with greater patience and better passing, swinging the ball around until they got open looks.
Alec Peters, he who came into the game averaging 16.6 points and 7.7 rebounds on .488/.442/.850 shooting, led the way for the visitors. He rarely forced the action, but gradually came to own the game. He finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds (5 offensive) in 28 minutes, shooting 6-of-10 from the floor. He’s just a good, solid basketball player. He has a nice jump shot, can put the ball on the floor a bit, and has the strength and smarts to finish in traffic. If Valpo indeed makes its way into the NCAA Tournament, his is a name you are likely to hear.
Such is life for the 2015-16 Cleveland State Vikings
On the CSU side, freshman guard Rob Edwards led the way with 11 points. Edwards has struggled as one might expect a 19-year-old to. He has notched games of 26, 24, and 21 points, games when he has looked like a hazy vision of Kyle Lowry or a similarly brawny lead guard. He has also had games of 4, 2, and 0 points, games when he has born a frightful resemblance to Dion Waiters. There’s no question that he is a talented player. The hope is that he is learning from what is surely a trying season.
Days after scoring 30 points in a victory at Youngstown State, junior forward Demonte Flannigan was held to six by Valparaiso. The Crusaders had plenty of bodies to throw at the 6-7 forward, and sent double teams any time he turned his back to the defense; Edwards has seen similar attention on occasion. Without credible deep threats to pull would-be help defenders away, CSU foes are free to tear after whomever they deem the most threatening offensive player.
Such is life for the 2015-16 Cleveland State Vikings. They have some promising players, and perhaps next year they will throw more punches than they take in the Horizon League. For now, all they can do is play hard, do their best, and hope for better. But if this season has taught any lesson, it is that talent, you know, matters.
Also, this game was played at the Q. Cleveland State has drawn a couple decent crowds at the Cavs’ arena when playing nearby teams like Ohio and Kent State, but those were on Saturday afternoons. Playing a team from a state away on a Tuesday night, I would be hard pressed to say there were more than 500 people in attendance.
To quote the aforementioned friendly security guard: Oooh. That’s not good.