By: Jack O’Keefe
Spread: Cleveland State -4
6:00 pm Central – Woolstein Center, Cleveland, OH
Northern Kentucky Norse (5-5, 3-2)
These two teams meet on Friday night and again on Saturday night, a true double-header for college basketball fans. It is not too often that you see two teams play each other back-to-back on consecutive days. This is the 2020-21 season though, so by definition it means anything goes. The Norse finished off the 2019-20 season with an impressive record of 23-9. The boys had their ticket punched after defeating the Flames of Illinois-Chicago in the Horizon League Tournament, only to have their spirits crushed days later by the COVID-19 news. Since joining the Horizon League in 2015, the Norse have strung together four straight 20+ win seasons along with, what would have been, three NCAA Tournament berths (2017, 2019 and 2020). Northern Kentucky Head Coach, Darrin Horn, inherited a program with sheer talent in his first season last year following the departure of John Brannen. This year has looked a little out of character for what NKU fans have grown accustomed to seeing over recent years. At a record of 5-4, Coach Horn certainly has his work cut out for him this season.
The Norse return two starters from a year ago: Trevon Faulkner and Bryson Langdon. The Norse lost their top three scorers from last season in Dantez Walton, Tyler Sharpe and Jalen Tate (transferred to Arkansas). The two seniors and juniors were responsible for 48.9% off the Norse offensive scoring last season, ouch. Thankfully, Trevon Faulkner has taken on more of the scoring role this season, increasing his points per game by nearly five points this season (16.7 points per game; averaged 11.9 points per game last season). Marques Warrick, a freshman guard from Lexington, Kentucky, has made an immediate impact for the Norse. Warrick is averaging 13.4 points per game this season, and he will certainly make a compelling case for Freshman of the Year Award in the Horizon League this season. Adrian Nelson has been a beast on the boards this season, averaging 10.8 rebounds per game for the Norse along with 7.0 points per game. Considering all the production lost from the previous season, the Norse have been doing their best buoying themselves above treacherous waters.
The Norse have been a strong team on the board this season, averaging 12.1 offensive rebounds per game (20th in Division-I). The Norse are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country as well, only averaging 20.0 rebounds per game (324th in Division-I). Total head scratcher? You bet. The Norse have a slightly above average offense this season, scoring 70.8 points per game (170th in Division-I), but they have also given up quite a few points as well to their opponents (71.7 points allowed per game; 181st in Division-I). The Norse have taken their fair share of three-point attempts this season (24.7 attempts per game; 72nd in Division-I), but they are not converting the chances at a high rate (28.4%; 298th in Division-I). The sooner the Norse realize how much better they are at scoring with two-point shots, the better off their offense will be in the long-run. The non-conference slate was unkind (2-3), but who is to say they cannot turn things around in conference play? Judging on Friday night’s performance, maybe not. The Norse were a horrendous 4-for-28 from downtown (14.3%), which was well below their season average. Cleveland State outworked Northern Kentucky in the post by posting 28 paint points opposed to the 18 points in the paint for Northern Kentucky.
Cleveland State Vikings (7-3, 7-0)
Word on the street is that there is a relatively big football game this weekend in Cleveland. For those Cleveland sport fans who want a little action before the big game on the gridiron, check out the matchup between Cleveland State and Northern Kentucky. Cleveland State looks pretty darn good this year. Aside from the drubbing they received from Ohio, you may have heard about it being the game where Ohio went on a 40-0 run, the Vikings have won/been in all of their games this season. They lost to a good Toledo team by nine points, and the Vikings lost to the Big Ten Buckeyes of Ohio State by only six points. With two wins over Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, Youngstown State, Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis and a win last night over Northern Kentucky, the Vikings are 7-0 to start conference play. The last time the Vikings started the season 7-0 in conference play was back in the 2007-08 season. That team went on to finish the season 21-13, and the Vikings made the NCAA Tournament the following year. Norris Cole was a member of Cleveland State on the team that last made the NCAA Tournament for Cleveland State. The Vikings that year pounced on the ACC Wake Forest Demon Deacons before falling to the Arizona Wildcats in the Round of 32.
What a difference a year can make for a team. Last season, Cleveland State finished with an abysmal 11-21 record, and only recorded seven conference wins all season. The Vikings last season lacked a true scorer, someone who could really get them a bucket down to stop the other team’s momentum. This season looks to be different. They are by no means a prolific offensive team (68 points per game; 217th in Division-I), but they have a playmaker in D’Moi Hodge. Hodge, a junior college transfer, is averaging 14.9 points per game, 4.3 rebounds per game and 1.9 assists per game this season. The guard also has shown quick hands defensively, pilfering the basketball 2.8 times per game. Torrey Patton and Tre Gomillion have been reliable scoring options for Coach Dennis Gates as well this season. Patton is averaging 11.4 points per game, along with 6.8 rebounds per game, while Gomillion is averaging 10.4 points per game this season.
Defensively this season, Cleveland State has been top-notch this season. Again, throw out the Ohio game, and the defensive stats would be even better than they appear right now. The Vikings are holding their opponent to 70.3 points per game this season (148th in Division-I). Teams have only shot 42.5% from the field against Cleveland State (128th in Division-I). Cleveland State does not want to beat you in a track meet type of game. Instead, they would rather grind out possessions and see what team can be the first one to score 63 points. The Vikings only needed 58 points last night to get the win. Their defense was lights-out, holding down the Norse to just 27.9% from the field and 44 total points cored. Cleveland State has a 5-0 record this season when they score 63 points or more in a game. It is not often about the quantity of shots you take in a game, rather the quality of the shots you take matter more. Just ask Cleveland State.
I love the “Cinderella” feel so far for an emerging Cleveland State Vikings team. I really do. I certainly did not have them on my radar to start the season as one of the top teams in the Horizon League, but I definitely have them on my eye now. I am very intrigued to see how they matchup with the likes of Wright State next week. I think though that the Vikings might be overlooking the Norse for Saturday’s game and more focused in on preparing for their matchup with Wright State. While the Wright State series will be important, you cannot overlook the opponent on your current radar. The Norse were down 12 at halftime and only ended up losing by 14. I do not think Northern Kentucky will win this game straight up necessarily, but I see them making this a one-possession game down the stretch. As good as Cleveland State is defensively, I really do not see Northern Kentucky being held to under 30% shooting from the field again today. Sorry Viking fans, I had you all winning laying the points yesterday, but I am going to take Northern Kentucky +4 in this one.
Jack’s 2020 CBB picks: (9-13)