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November 14, 2011, 10:57 AM ET
Will success spoil Cleveland State?

by John Gasaway

Time once again to propose a large and daunting project, one that I myself don’t wish to do but would love to see done. (No, I see no paradox there.) You there, bored undergrad! Do us all a favor and compile a Situational Thesaurus of Coach-Speak.

I envision something where you could flip to, say, “Top-10 team loses in November at home to a mid-major,” and the suggested sound bite would be: “I told them we were getting ready to play a very good team.” What’s this? That’s what Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings actually did say after his No. 7 Commodores lost 71-58 in Nashville to Cleveland State yesterday?

Stallings is right. This is a very good team, and yesterday they made Vandy’s offense look really bad. The ‘Dores were playing without Festus Ezeli, of course (out with a knee injury), but you’d still think John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor could do better than 58 points in 70 possessions. Give credit to the Vikings. D’Aundray Brown, last seen as a defensive force of nature in 2009-10 before a wrist injury sidelined him last year, looked potent on both sides of the ball for CSU: 18 points on 10 shots with seven steals.

When my compendium of coach-speak is completed, Cleveland State head coach Gary Waters will be able turn to the page marked, “Mid-major wins in November on the road against top-10 opponent” and say: “I told our guys handling adversity is easy, the question now is whether they’re ready to handle success.” No, Waters didn’t actually say that, but it sounds good and coach-speaky, doesn’t it? More importantly it’s a good question. Right now the Vikings are receiving all kinds of adulation for their “toughness” and “physical” play. The adulation is richly deserved, but in this case and with this team its phrasing could be deadly. The truth is Cleveland State probably needs to be a little less “tough” and less physical.

The one thing that could screw up the Vikings is that they foul too much (it’s like they think they’re Indiana!), and, worse, they do so without any corresponding benefit at all in the area of opponent turnovers. True, they did get the Commodores to cough up the ball 30 percent of the time yesterday, but I wonder if Waters fully realizes he now has a defense so good that, unlike in 2010, it doesn’t need to gamble for turnovers. Last year CSU allowed the Horizon league just 1.24 points per effective (TO-less) possession, a mark that was second in the league only to Valparaiso’s effective-possession D. Meaning the Vikings are really good on defense straight-up, they don’t need to force an inordinate number of turnovers (as, for instance, Wright State so plainly did last year — sometimes gambling’s the smart play). Waters’ team plays excellent FG defense on both sides of the arc, and they’re OK on the defensive glass.

Of course the Vikes can continue to talk up being “tough” and “physical” to beat writers, and certainly they can kill each other all they want in practice, but the reality is last year they gifted free points to opponents. Stop doing that and you’ll truly be a very good team, one that rightly prompts opposing coaches to sound the alarm with their players.

BONUS “Oh no he did-nt” note! My good ESPN frere Myron Medcalf says “Cleveland State was an afterthought in preseason conversations about the Horizon League, most of which centered on Butler and Detroit.” Say what? Get this man a College Basketball Prospectus 2011-12 this instant! In that indispensable book he’ll find the Titans looking up at the Vikings in the order of predicted Horizon finish, despite the fact that UDM comprises a whopping 60 percent of the preseason all-Horizon first team (Ray McCallum, Jr., the currently inactive Eli Holman, and Chase Simon). Even without the now departed Norris Cole, CSU figures to have a lot of veteran talent in what this year will be a very young league. Indeed aside from their frequent and debilitating hacking, “everything else looks promising for this deep and experienced team.” True enough.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

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