MIAMI (AP)—Wake Forest guard Ishmael Smith was parking his car and preparing to leave for the NCAA tournament when he received a warning from a campus cop: Don’t overlook Cleveland State.
The No. 4-seeded Demon Deacons play their opening-round game Friday night against the Vikings, who are in the field for the first time since a storybook run 23 years ago. That season, they upset Indiana in the first round and reached the regional final before losing in the final seconds to Navy and David Robinson.
None of which Smith knew, until he encountered the police officer who wished Wake Forest good luck before offering a cautionary lesson in Cleveland State history.
“He said, ‘The last time they were in the tournament was 1986,”’ Smith said. “I was like, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘And they upset Bobby Knight’s Indiana team. Don’t let it happen to you guys.”’
Only three current Cleveland State players were alive when the Vikings became the first No. 14 seed to win a tournament game. But they’re well aware of the history.
“That’s something that’s still talked about in the city all the time,” said center Chris Moore, a Cleveland native. “It’s definitely an honor to be compared to those guys, but we’re trying to create our own legacy and step out of that shadow and be something else that’s remembered in the city of Cleveland.”
This is only the second time the Vikings have made the tournament, and again they’re considered long shots to survive the opening round.
Cleveland State (25-10) averages 66 points a game and has only one starter taller than 6-foot-5, while Wake Forest (24-6) averages 81 points and has a front line that’s 7-foot, 6-9 and 6-9.
But the Vikings have three senior starters to none for Wake Forest. They play the kind of smothering defense that can make all the difference this time of year.
And they’re on a roll, winning four games in eight days for their first Horizon League championship, which the Deacons still feel the sting of an upset loss to Maryland last week in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Wake Forest was doomed in that defeat by 30-percent shooting, including 3-for-25 from 3-point range.
“We went into that game a little tighter than we were supposed to be, not as aggressive as we usually are,” Smith said. “We were kind of playing a little timid, and that’s one thing that we have to learn from. You’ve got to play loose.”
Wake Forest will try, but it’s Cleveland State with nothing to lose. This season already qualifies as a success for a program that was 4-25 in 2003-04 and 10-21 two years ago, when Gary Waters was in his first year as coach.
“These guys, when I got there, didn’t understand what it took to win,” Waters said.
They do now. Waters has the Vikings winning with efficient offense and stingy defense. In the Horizon League title game, for example, they committed only seven turnovers while holding Butler to one field goal in the final 13:45.
“Their defense is the one thing that kind of concerns me the most,” Smith said. “It’s kind of Duke-ish, where they’re really into you, really pressuring the basketball and denying the basketball.”
That approach helped the Vikings win at Syracuse in December.
“We just want to do our best to get dirty,” Jackson said. “If we get cuts, we get cuts. If we bleed, we bleed. But our makeup is to play the best defense we can and go hard and take nothing easy.”
The focus on defense should help the Vikings surmount any stage fright, the same way that Cleveland State team did a generation ago with Knight on the opposing bench. It was an upset that captivated the nation—the first opening-round loss in the NCAA tournament for the future Hall of Fame coach.
Jackson was 9 days old. When asked what he remembers about that game, he laughs.
“We’re just following in the footsteps,” Jackson said. “But we’re trying to reach a further goal than what they did.”
He means a trip to the Final Four. At Cleveland State, they still believe in miracles.