It cannot be understated: this week for the Cleveland State Vikings could make or break their season. In a league where multiple bids are never guaranteed and in the conference tournament, anything goes, how you finish in league play is of the utmost importance.
And for CSU (20-3, 9-2, KenPom 48, RPI 29), this week could go a long way to determining those standings. Their first step is tonight against the Valparaiso Crusaders (16-6, 9-2, KenPom 84, RPI 59) at the Wolstein Center. And as if that test isn't tough enough, they stay home to face off against Butler on Saturday. CSU's only two losses in conference were to Valpo and Butler, both on the road.
That puts them in a bit of a hole, as they have lost Valpo and Butler both currently own the tiebreaker over the Vikings as it stands right now. Butler (14-8, 6-4, KenPom 60, RPI 43) is going to need a lot of help. If CSU loses both today and Saturday, that would put them at four conference losses, tied with Valpo, and put the Crusaders in the driver's seat for the #1 seed in the conference tournament.
If CSU is able to pull out a victory over Valpo and split the series, losing to Butler, that moves Butler ever closer to reclaiming the top spot and keeping CSU and Valpo tied for first. Wright State is also sitting at 7-4 and is not out of it yet.
So, what are some things to watch for in tonight's game?
The Horizon League is perennially known for their guards. And this year's crop is no exception. In fact, there might not be two guards in the conference better than CSU's Norris Cole and Valpo's Brandon Wood. Wood is averaging 16 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.5 steals and 1.8 steals per game. He's also shooting a respectable 35% from the 3PT line and is truly the Crusaders go-to guy in crunch time.
Cole, on the other hand, has played out of this world, but CSU puts a lot more on his shoulders. He takes almost 15 shots per game and shoots 45% overall (with a very good 35.5% 3PT), and his numbers are just spectacular: 20 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists and an absurd 2.4 steals. His turnovers are a bit higher than Wood's, which is to be expected because is in Cole's hands a large portion of the time (He is 22nd in the nation in %Possessions and 77th in the country in %Shots). This matchup is definitely one to watch.
In The Paint:
Another close thing to keep an eye on is who is able to assert themselves in the paint throughout the game. Cleveland State gives up a lot of offensive rebounds and gets blocked a lot (while not blocking a ton of shots themselves). Which is odd considering they play some of the best defense in the country (32nd overall). They are not a deep team either, with only five players each using at least 16% of their team's possessions. Tim Kamczyc (5.2 points, 3.8 rebounds) will have to have a big game, and Aaron Pogue (8 points, 6.4 rebounds) is absolutely going to need to step up and stay out of foul trouble, something he has not been able to do very often this season.
For Valpo, they've got that go-to guy in Cory Johnson. He can play down low, or step out to hit a mid-range jumper. He has also taken 55 3s on the season (although he has not hit enough of them to justify those attempts). He plays bigger than his 6'7" frame, and puts up close to 16 points a game. If he is able to assert himself, and have a solid rebounding game, that will give the Crusaders the advantage. Overall though, both teams rely heavily on their guards, so whichever team can fight for rebounds and get second chance opportunities will be at a supreme advantage.
Defense vs. Offense:
As mentioned, Cleveland State is a terrific defensive team. That's been Head Coach Gary Waters' calling card forever. But surprisingly, Valpo has played good defense as well this season, something they've had a lot of trouble with the past few seasons (301st a year ago). The teams are almost carbon copies of each other (95th and 97th in tempo), slightly more effective defenses than offenses, and good at defending the three.
The key thing to watch though is whether or not CSU is able to force the Crusaders into taking a significant number of jump shoots. Valpo is very bad at 3PT shooting, and yet they are in the top half of 3PT shots taken. What is consequently so strange about this is that the Crusaders are in the top 20 in 2PT%. So why are they taking so many threes? This was a head-scratcher in the Butler game especially. Cleveland State is not particularly notable at anything offensively, but they are very balanced and take care of the basketball. On defense is where they make their mark.
To counteract this, I believe Valpo will try to play an up-tempo game and try to get Cleveland State into foul trouble by grabbing defensive rebounds and using outlets to force CSU into fouling to prevent easy buckets. This would put a lot of pressure on CSU's role players to have a strong game, or keep Norris Cole as the No. 1 guy, something he's been able to handle in the past. But if he's having an off night, that could be trouble for the Vikings.
Regardless of the outcome, this should be a very good game, and anyone in Cleveland looking for something to do would be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining Thursday night. CSU is the closest thing to a winning team Cleveland has right now, and they deserve the city's support.