The Cleveland State Vikings have only themselves to blame for their tough road to a NCAA Tournament birth. They could have enjoyed a free ride all the way to the semi-finals of the Horizon League Tournament. Instead of playing two games for a chance to dance, CSU needs to win four.
The Vikings passed their first test on Tuesday night when they beat Illinois-Chicago 73-61 at the Wolstein Center. Things get tougher starting tonight when the Vikings take on the Wright State Raiders at U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee.
Cleveland State swept the season series from the Raiders for the first time since 1997-98. The Vikings beat Wright State 65-46 at the Wolstein Center on January 22, and followed it up at Wright State with a 74-72 triumph. The Vikings, the third seed in this year's event, took care of 10th-seeded Illinois-Chicago on Tuesday night with a 73-61 decision to advance. Cleveland State has won this tournament once before with a 57-54 victory over the Butler Bulldogs in 2009, but still the team has a record of only 10-14 in the event over the years.
As for the sixth-seeded Raiders, they took down seventh-seeded Green Bay three nights ago with a 60-50 triumph. Like the Vikings, Wright State has won the championship just once before with a victory over Butler in 2007, yet the Raiders are also under .500 in the event overall at 13-15.
This year the Vikings swept the season series for the first time since 1997-98 and because of that the teams are now knotted at 27-27 in the all-time series. The squads have met twice previously in tournament action with CSU posting a win in Chicago during the 1993-94 campaign and the Raiders returning the favor the following year in their own building.
The winner of this matchup advances to the semifinals on Saturday where they will contend against second-seeded Butler for the right to move onto the title game on Tuesday night.
Vaughn Duggins scored a game-high 22 points, leading four players in double figures, as the Wright State Raiders posted a double-digit win over the Green Bay Phoenix in the first round of this tournament on Tuesday night at the Nutter Center. Also scoring in double figures for the sixth-seeded Raiders were Armond Battle with 13, Cooper Land 11 and N'Gai Evans 10 points, even though the latter shot a mere 2-of-11 from the floor on the night. An all- conference performer this season for the Raiders, Duggins is averaging a hefty 18.2 ppg for the squad at the moment and has been a fixture at the free-throw line where he has converted 81.4 percent of his opportunities. Evans, who has made good on 78.4 percent of his chances at the charity stripe in his 29 appearances, checks in with 14.1 ppg, while Troy Tabler accounts for 10.9 ppg even through he is shooting just 35.9 percent from the floor for a team that is generating a mere 64.5 ppg.
Except for Tim Kamczyc who finished with just five points, every starter for the Vikings scored in double figures in the first round of the tournament against UIC, as Norris Cole took control with 26 points. Jeremy Montgomery tacked on 17 points, Trevon Harmon 13 and Aaron Pogue 10 points before the center picked up his fifth foul of the meeting. Defensively, the team held the Flames to just 36.7 percent shooting from the floor and forced the visitors into 19 turnovers, which exceeded the squad's total of 18 made field goals. Cole has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Vikings this season, leading the squad in scoring in each of the last four outings and six of the last seven on his way to putting up 21.8 ppg. Cole has thrived at the free-throw line where he has knocked down a staggering 200-of-237, the rest of the team converting a total of 329 free-throw chances. But more than just a scorer, Cole is also active on the glass (6.0 rpg) and is first on the team in both assists (174) and steals (69) so it is no wonder he was named the Horizon League Player of the Year.
Considering the season Cole has put together, there's no way he's going to allow the Vikings to bow out of this event before they've made a significant push towards the title game.