Horizon League Play is Exciting, Not Decisive

Last week’s split with Valparaiso and Butler meant different things to different people. For those looking to see the Vikings vindicate their season, on national television, by beating a well-respected team, Saturday’s loss to Butler was wholly disappointing. However, for those fans that are already turning to the box scores to better understand what Cleveland State needs to win the Horizon League, they can be consoled in knowing that the win over Valpo was much more important in the standings.

Let’s not forget something: Butler was last season. The half-court shot that fell just short of beating Duke for a national title was eleven months ago. The shooter, Gordon Hayward, is now averaging eleven minutes a game in the NBA out in Utah. This season’s Butler Bulldogs came into the game in fifth place in the Horizon League with a pedestrian 6-5 record. Whatever Butler had last year when they were 8-0 in Horizon League play, the only part they’ve retained is the ability to be a major thorn in Coach Waters’ side this season. And ultimately, who cares if they can’t beat Butler? They may not have to beat them to win the Horizon League tournament anyway.

“It was one of the days that they did not dictate the defensive tempo,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said after the game, and the stats seem to verify his comment. The Vikings simply did not have their usual defensive intensity and only forced five turnovers while giving the ball away 12 times. Worse, the Vikings played the game at Butler’s speed. They are better with Norris Cole transitioning opponents’ turnovers into quick scores on the other end. Norris Cole averages 5.3 assists per game for the season. In this game, the entire team had 6.

What a difference from Thursday night. Then, the Vikings lit up the arena and put some distance between themselves and Valparaiso at the top of the Horizon League. Norris Cole was his usual fabulous self and combined with Jeremy Montgomery to score 51 points. It’s difficult to imagine how Coach Waters will replace Cole’s stat line in a big game like this next season: 25 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and a perfect 8-for-8 from the line.

The Valparaiso game was encouraging for almost as many reasons as the Butler game was not. Against Valpo, Tre Harmon made up for a poor shooting night with a season high 12 rebounds. His usual disruptive defense on PG Erik Buggs kept Valpo out of sync all night and resulted in Buggs fouling out five minutes into the second half. Harmon played only 25 minutes against Butler because of early foul trouble, and his missing presence allowed Butler to shoot 47 percent from the floor.

Tim Kamczyk played his type of game on Thursday with solid defense inside and out. He made the few shots he took, earning six points. Butler dared him to shoot, however, leaving him wide open for all the three’s he cared to take. He was 2 for 6 on three’s, 2 for 9 overall, and opted to take the ball to the rim late in the second half when his shots just weren’t falling. That was probably a better idea as he got to the line six times, hitting them all.

Coach Waters was also limited in how to answer Stevens’ strategy of doubling Cole and leaving a shooter all alone on the perimeter. The Vikings bench has some strengths: length, athleticism, and the same defensive energy that the starters bring, but Waters’ substitutions on Saturday provided only six points on three of ten shooting, and they clearly lack a bench shooter that can relieve a slumping starter around the perimeter.

“They have not gotten our best game yet. That’s a positive,” coach Waters observed shortly after the loss to Butler. Yes, it’s too bad that Cleveland State didn’t take the throne from Butler in front of a sold out crowd on Saturday. It would have been nice to see Brad Stevens hand off the Horizon League crown to Coach Waters at center court while ESPN’s cameras zoomed in on the rollicking student section. But it would have been ceremonial anyway. Win or lose, this season’s script is far from finished.

If Cleveland State fans are learning anything from the wild world of Horizon League basketball this season, it’s that yesterday meant very little and tomorrow’s predictions mean nothing at all. The Vikings still have six important games left, including another marquee matchup with Old Dominion.

Butler has fallen to both Valpo and ninth-place Youngstown State. Valpo has lost to Butler and Cleveland State.

Therefore, Cleveland State may still have to beat Butler to reach their final destination. If Coach Waters is right and they haven’t played their best game yet, they better be prepared next time; they are running low on whatever breathing room they created with their torrid start.