Even though LeBron has taken his talents to South Beach and the Cavaliers have returned to their traditional level of mediocrity, the city of Cleveland is not devoid of quality basketball this winter.
Cleveland State's fledgling basketball program has filled that void, storming to a 12-0 record behind the all-around excellence of guards Norris Cole, Trevon Harmon and Jeremy Montgomery.
Although Cleveland State's undefeated start has come against mostly mid-major competition, the Vikings have a chance to earn a statement victory against Big East power West Virginia on Saturday. Coach Gary Waters joined me earlier this week to discuss why his team is playing so well, what the keys are to the West Virginia game and how much inspiration the Vikings took from Horizon League foe Butler's historic NCAA tournament run.
JE: When you came to Cleveland State, I remember you saying you thought this could be an NCAA tournament team within a couple years and you proved that in 2009. What did you see in this program that you liked?
GW: I'm from the Midwest, I felt the recruiting was strong here and I thought if we got the right type of kids playing for us, we had an opportunity to be successful. I also thought we were in a league where if we were competitive, we had a chance to get to the tournament. That's why I was excited.
JE: Compare this year's team to the one that upset Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA tournament two years ago. I know the style of play is different, but are there any similarities?
GW: A little bit. That team was very physical two years ago. We had big size across the front line and that team was a very good rebounding team. If there's a weakness with us right now, it's that I don't think we're a very good rebounding team. But this team is a lot quicker than that team. We can score in bunches, get out in transition and pressure you 94 feet.
JE: You guys finished 16-17 last season. Did you think an undefeated start like this was possible entering the offseason?
GW: I thought we could have a good year because the 16-17 record last season was not indicative of us. What I mean was we could have won three more games on that schedule at the max because what people don't realize is in the final 16, we played eight of them, in the final eight, we played four of them, in the final four, we played two of them and in the final two we played one. So we had a very, very tough schedule, but we ended strong. We would have probably made it to the championship game of our conference tournament if we hadn't had two guys go down in the previous game.
JE: You've talked a lot about the importance of the work your team put in this summer. What caused them to put so much effort in on their own?
GW: That I thought is the key to our season right now. What I tried to make them realize is that this can be a great year for them but they had to work at it then and not wait for the season to start. That's what they made a commitment to. They conditioned, they worked on their individual games, they played in a pro-am summer league. They just made an overall commitment and they did it from 7:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night.
JE: How much did Butler's run to the title game inspire your guys knowing that you've been competitive with them over the years?
GW: It meant a lot to them because they saw that there was a team they've competed against that could go that far. One time we did discuss it. We were pretty impressed and excited about what Butler did because it showed something about our league and all mid-level schools. If you work at it and get the right group of guys together, you have a chance to go very far. That was a motivating factor for us.
JE: The jump that Norris Cole has made from last season to this season is very impressive. How has he improved?
GW: He knows the point guard position forward and back now. Last year was the first time I put him at that position exclusively. What he had to do was learn how to be a point guard but also score for us. By the end of the year, he was doing that extremely well. And when he worked this summer and went to all those camps, he came back with a whole new degree of confidence.
JE: You've even said you think he's the best guard in the Midwest, right?
GW: There's no question in my mind. He's doing more than just scoring and assisting. He's defended the top scoring guard on each team. (Josten Crow) from Sam Houston State, he held him scoreless. (Tone Boyle), he held him to two or three points. He's brought it in all facets of the game.
JE: There's a basketball void in Cleveland with LeBron leaving this summer and with the Cavs struggling. Do you see a chance that this team could fill that void in February and March if it continues to perform so well?
GW: I'm hoping it happens and I think it can. They're looking for someone to bring some excitement to this city and I think this is a group of players that can play that way. The biggest thing we have to do is get them to a game. If you come to a game and watch our style of play, you come away excited. But the problem is a lot of people haven't been here. And it's a pro town and I understand that and being a pro town they follow professional sports. In November and December, they're looking at football. They're not even looking at basketball. Once January and February roll around, they start looking at basketball. We're hoping we're the group they start looking at in basketball.
JE: The schedule that you've played hasn't had a lot of big-name programs but it has had some strong mid-majors. Do you guys deserve more credit for being 12-0?
GW: I think you could say we've been overlooked, but it doesn't faze us because we changed our schedule on purpose. In the last three years, we played a great deal of high-majors. This year we're playing a few high-majors, but we've inundated our schedule with many quality mid-majors.
JE: The West Virginia game is your first against a marquee BCS-conference program. Do you view it as an opportunity to prove yourself?
GW: We think they're one of the elite programs in the country, and if we're going to make some noise, we have to compete against a team like that. That's what we're excited about doing.
JE: With West Virginia's big front line and their physicality, is rebounding your biggest concern in that game?
GW: That's the biggest concern and the second concern is how well they defend. They hold teams to 37 percent shooting, so we're going to have to score on this team and find ways to score.